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Issue 138

Arts of Engagement: Taking Aesthetic Action In and Beyond the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, edited by Dylan Robinson and Keavy Martin
by Sydney Hart

Throughout national events for Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), a bentwood box created by Coast Salish carver Luke Marston accompanied testimonies across the country. Carved following Northwest Coast traditions, Medicine Box (2012), also known as the “TRC box,” took on an important role, and contained material offerings, such as paper notes and photos, left by the TRC’s speakers.1 Arts of Engagement: Taking Aesthetic Action in and Beyond the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (2016) primarily engages with such cultural forms occurring against the backdrop of the TRC – forms that include songs, performance, spatial design and visual culture drawing from First Nations, Métis and Inuit modes of practice. Arts of Engagement focuses on the particular social, political and affective impacts of these cultural forms as “sensory engagement.” It is this notion of sensory engagement that brings the book’s various inquiries into art and aesthetics together. Crucially then, the book’s articulation of aesthetics does not refer to philosophies of taste or beauty (in the Kantian sense), but instead encompasses the realm of the sensory and the philosophy of the sensible. “Aesthetic action,” as the title suggests, refers to practices that are more than simply “representational, or for contemplation and reflection,” but which can contribute to enacting law, and documenting history.2 The book thus asks its readers to consider the potential of aesthetic forms as actions, and to consider how these actions carry affective, social and political meaning, both through the immediate context of the TRC’s events, and wider discussions on the topic of reconciliation. This framing of aesthetics notably shifts the reader’s attention away from the discrete aesthetic categories of cultural objects, towards the social and political context of particular aesthetic relations. These relations encompass, for instance, the sensory memories of residential school survivors, the process of hearing a voice sharing testimony, and the spatial proximity of settler publics in witnessing.

Arts of Engagement is edited by Keavy Martin, a settler scholar of Indigenous literatures, and Dylan Robinson, a Stó:lō scholar of Indigenous art and music. The book forms part of the Indigenous Studies Series published by Wilfrid Laurier University Press, a series focusing on discussions in the humanities inspired by Indigenous epistemological frameworks. Arts of Engagement combines scholarly research in Indigenous studies, cultural studies and anthropology with creative writing and interviews; sparse illustrations throughout document TRC national events. With passages at turns documentary, performative, critical and conversational, the book is reflective of the varying tones of the aesthetic actions addressed.

While the book underlines the invaluable work of people who attended and shared testimonies at TRC national events and the ways in which survivors “remade the TRC process as their own,”3 the TRC’s frameworks, including the discourse of reconciliation, appear as prominent objects of critique. In their respective contributions, artists David Garneau and Bracken Hanuse Corlett question the Christian connotations underpinning the term “reconciliation.” The word’s roots connote the objective of “restoring one’s relationship to God,” and can thus elicit questions regarding whose conscience is to be cleared by such “restoration.” In opposition to settler discourse stressing the need for “healing” and “forgiveness” from survivors, Martin and Robinson argue that discourses of reconciliation can risk placing the burden of restoring relations “squarely on the shoulders of survivors” – and instead stress the concept of “intergenerational responsibility” for the settler public.4 Garneau, on his part, prefers the term “conciliation,” arguing that the temporality of “reconciliation” implies that once-harmonious relations between settlers and Indigenous people should now be recaptured. For Garneau, this is historical revisionism, a fiction that further “constricts our collective sense of the future.”5 Jill Scott and Alan Fletcher, in their contribution, address how the term “redress” invokes more concrete demands focused on accountability, justice, compensation and reparations. Furthermore, they delve into corresponding Haudenosaunee traditions, to find that terms such as “atonement” and “condolence” appear as more culturally relevant alternatives to “reconciliation.” This example highlights the discrepancies in meaning between federal discourses, and their pertinence across hundreds of Indigenous languages and related worldviews.

Throughout Arts of Engagement, the body appears as a prominent site, notably a site onto which processes of witnessing, and expressions of sovereignty, are registered. For Tahltan performance artist Peter Morin, for instance, the body appears as a “resonant chamber,” which “sounds out,” echoes and transfigures the legacy of residential schools. As Morin writes: “I carry the voices of the residential school survivors, / I carry their testimony with me / I put them on a shelf inside my body / you should too.”6 The power inherent in witnessing through aesthetic action is further elaborated on by Indigenous theatre practitioner Lisa C. Ravensbergen. Writing about how “witnessing empowers change,” Ravensbergen outlines the radical potential of Indigenous theatre, describing how it can become a tool for “decolonizing the performer-audience relationship.”7 In the context of the book’s allusions to witnessing in the TRC framework, Ravensbergen’s claims draw attention to how aesthetics can enable particular affective relations through proximity and distance. As the editors remind us, architectural features of TRC events “spatialize connection,” and spatial arrangements – whether audiences are confronted with a formal panel on a raised stage or an intimate musical performance – have an “explicit relationship to the types of togethering that are possible.” [8]

Jumping amongst the various cultural forms addressed in Arts of Engagement easily conjures the potential in a plurality of forms of sensory engagement, and the ways that different media and practices have their own advantages in acting on an embodied relation to colonial injustice. The volume thus outlines many paths for supporting aesthetic action against colonial injustice through a prefigurative, politicized and ultimately invigorated understanding of aesthetics. Furthermore, Arts of Engagement foregrounds the relational and contextual character of its aesthetic actions, and several contributors centre principles of reciprocity, witnessing and intergenerational responsibility. In the Canadian national context, the book arrives at a pivotal time, as settler awareness of the injustice inherent to colonial structures grows along with an immense expectation – and apprehension – concerning the potential of state initiatives aimed at reconciliation to heal colonial wounds. Arts of Engagement is a vital examination of the aesthetic stakes surrounding the TRC’s discursive framework; beyond it, however, this book boldly maps the inherently radical and transformative character of Indigenous aesthetic actions.

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