One Thing: Surface Tension (or What Holds an ‘Us’ Together)
by Arun Nedra Rodrigo
“The villager’s concern is not only with what substances enter the ür (town/village) and affect its inhabitants but with the effect of these alien substances on the substance of the ür itself. Concern with the effect on the quality of the soil substance of the is understandable given Tamil beliefs that the soil substance is ultimately mixed with the bodily substance of the ür’s inhabitants.”1
Waves crash and pull away on screen while spectral figures play a game of catch with the sea, casting out objects that may or may not return. This shot is supplanted by clips of Google Translate rebounding words and phrases—from a simple noun, “flower,” to evocative phrases like “conceiving of longing as the outcome of a wish”—back and forth between English and Tamil, changing form and meaning as they do. On a table, a series of newspaper clippings refer to, among many things, the arrival of two boatloads of Tamil refugees in Newfoundland in 1986, and arising from the ground, a dune of wet sand bears a life-sized impression of the hull of the lifeboat that brought them.
“Surface tension” references the invisible bridges that water molecules create between particles of sand that allow it to become soil. The molecules remain invisible yet shape the visible. These invisible bridges, here, can be read as a metaphor for the covenants that shape human relations, including abstract concepts like community, ownership, belonging and nation. Through Surface Tension (or What Holds an ‘Us’ Together) (2019), Joshua Vettivelu underlines a colonizing extractive practice by foregrounding land, to interrogate and shift the ways it is viewed. They draw the viewer into a meditation on the idea of terra nullius (nobody’s land) and the imprint of multiple arrivals on Indigenous lands.
Along with the 1986 event, Surface Tension spans, in its trajectory, the first point of contact between English settlers and Indigenous peoples on Beothuk territories in 1497; the arrival in Vancouver of the Ocean Lady in 2009 and the MV Sun Sea in 2010, both of which transported Tamil refugees; the gruesome 2018 murder of the Tamil refugee Kirushnakumar Kanagaratnam (who arrived on the MV Sun Sea) and, tethering the project directly to the present, disparaging online commentary on the waste of resources on the exhibition as well as on the Tamil refugees.
Settler incursions into Indigenous lands were first legitimized by ontotheologically derived European international trade laws which endowed the settlers with the freedom to extract from terra nullius, the right to a free market and the right to enter into a “just war” with the Indigenous people who resisted them.2 The desire of the settler to extract resources from this so-called nobody’s land, for the benefit of their own nations and empires, became codified into an international network of juridical and cultural practices that reified the settlers’ claims in relation to the ownership of land (material/territorial resource), the enslavement or murder of Indigenous people (labour resource) and the enforcement of religious conversion (spiritual resource). The normalization of such extractive rights and freedoms, which enriched the colonizing nations, would continue well into the legislation of the Indian Act in Canada and would be key in shaping the settler mindset.
It is precisely this long, self-endorsing3 practice of extraction that would instill a kind of impunity in settlers regarding refugees. For example, though rights were extended to the refugees who arrived in 1986, they were denied to the refugees who arrived in 2009 and 2010; the former were framed as desirable immigrants (potential model minorities), and the latter as undesirable immigrants (terrorists and suicide bombers). Surface Tension reveals the capricious nature of extractive power, which endows only those deemed worthy with rights, and follows the trajectory of that power to the moment when Kanagaratnam was deemed unworthy and denied those rights to the point of death. Suspected of having links to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, he was criminalized by the state and rendered vulnerable to isolation, exploitation and predation. His murder and the subsequent difficulties in identifying his tortured body are excruciatingly emblematic of the rights and resources his murderer could access, and which Kanagaratnam was denied.
Notably, the Harper government’s vitriolic outbursts against the 2009 and 2010 refugees—which were predicated on arguments that they were undocumented immigrants who would be stealing Canadian jobs, despite the large numbers of invisible migrant labourers who grow and cook our food—starkly contrasted to the welcoming and healing ceremonies carried out by Indigenous Elders of the Coast Salish territories, and the public declarations of support from members of the Wet’suwet’en and Anishinaabe nations. As Kailey Bryan, curator of Eastern Edge Gallery, intimates: “Through imagined bodies and visceral consequences … we reflect on who receives the benefits of empathy. How is the ‘us’ that delivers that empathy constituted?”4 For those refugees, reaching land from the sea meant reaching safety, but that safety becomes a mirage when the haven reveals its own violence and erasures, and when a refugee is ultimately driven to his death.
Surface Tension is an intervention in the forces of extraction in its manifold iterations. It renders tangible the bonds between human beings, in order to observe the moments when those bonds fail us. Relational bonds shift, change and express themselves in means outside their own framing. In creating a work that will deteriorate and lose definition over time, Vettivelu explores the possibilities of a non extractive cultural practice that returns the land to its natural state. In a coda indicating the temporality of extracting and own.ing meaning altogether, the materials used in Surface Tension have since been dismantled for use in gardens and in the construction of furniture for farmers and artists in the local community.