Artefact: Landscapes of Forgetting
by Pamela Edmonds
In Present Past: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory, Andreas Huyssen argues that Western contemporary life has become “saturated” with memory. This phenomenon is read as a response to a growing obsession with a (potential) forgetfulness, which he sees as emerging from the temporal and spatial fracturing of globalization processes. The desire to forget always seems to grow in proportion to the desire to remember, especially when problematic aspects of a nation’s past are at stake… Memory and amnesia always exist side by side and remain part of a political struggle.1
Camille Turner is an artist and researcher whose activist and transmedia practice moves through the various realms of the local, global, the diasporic and transnational to consider how Canada is spatially produced and narrativized by its forgotten histories. By excavating and uncovering buried archives and neglected stories related to both landscape and architecture, her work also explores the social dimensions of digital technology to create intercultural experiences that expose how Black Canadian geographies continue to be characterized by both an absence and presence, and by a dialectic of visibility and invisibility.
The concept of “not-forgetting” as opposed to “memorialization” serves as a starting point that is central to articulating Turner’s creative process, which comprises deconstructing the contrived hegemony of official histories and their institutionalized documentation. She invites her audiences to imaginatively travel across time and space to engage with narratives that bring to life stories of early Black settlement across various towns, cities and neighbourhoods throughout the country (and ultimately across the universe). These interactive and immersive site-specific walking tours navigate through and unearth the forgotten and denied legacy of slavery, making evident the underlying racism, experiences of violence and death in the Black lives that linger as “hauntings” at the level of the individual and the collective.
Turner investigates the immersive properties of sound, combined with the participatory and embodied activity of walking through space, to bring the hidden and erased histories and geographies of Black Canadians to life. Structured as interactive walking tours, often made accessible through locative media and portable listening devices, or through alternatively mapped guided tours, these site-specific, neighbourhood-based interventions or “Afrofuturist sonic walks” as she refers to them, reformulate the past from perspectives of the present and future through scripted narratives that re-imagine, re- map and re-negotiate both historical and contemporary geographies. Reviving the principle of oral tradition through not only auditory, but visual and other sensorial means, this work also articulates as Katherine McKittrick suggests, the tensions between community and preservation, absence and erasure, that scatter the Canadian landscape, illustrating how places are inflected with unexpected, unacknowledged, historical maps.2
HUSH HARBOUR and The Resistance of Peggy Pompadour (2013) are sonic journeys inspired by early history in Toronto’s Grange district. They tell the story of Peggy, a woman enslaved in Canada who is put up for sale and jailed by one of Ontario’s founding fathers, Peter Russell. Peggy’s plight for freedom and love is told through the time-defying travels of a young woman, Gloria Smith, who is able to access and respatialize the geographies of 21st-century metropolitan Toronto and the 18th-century town of York, encountering Peggy at the city’s King Edward Hotel, the site of Toronto’s first jail.
The Landscape of Forgetting (a collaboration with artist Alana Bartol) is a guided walk that articulates how landscape can act an effective medium for masking social and political interests by naturalizing relationships to power. Taking place on November 15, 2014, in Windsor, Ontario, as part of the Neighbourhood Spaces Symposium, the tour began at the François Baby House, also known as Windsor’s Community Museum – a site that was once used as a headquarters during the War of 1812. Baby was a prominent and revered French-Canadian politician but, as Turner noted, none of the didactic materials about him mention the fact the he was also a slave owner. Which is why the artist set out to discover the untold stories of the people rendered invisible who lived and worked there.
The Windsor area, located in such close proximity to the American border, is known as one of the most significant entry points to Canada for the Underground Railroad, a network of places that abolitionists used to help slaves escape to freedom in the first half of the 1800s. The Landscape of Forgetting’s movement continued to Dieppe Gardens in Windsor’s riverfront park, a space of crossing from enslavement to freedom. Here, Lana Talbot sung the spiritual Wade in the Water at the Detroit River, a code song that contained secret messages warning freedom seekers to flee dry land for the water so that the dogs and owners chasing them couldn’t track their scent.
By walking in their footsteps, and through the power of sound and imagination, participants in Turner’s projects continue to embody and re-envision how Black realities resist and reconfigure human geographies, opening up new ways of thinking about the politics of place, while enabling a global sense of space to emerge and be shared.