Performance, Climate, and Critical Art

by VK Preston


My essay for the print edition of Theatre Journal (72.2, June 2020), "Queer and Indigenous Art: Performing Ice Times in Climate Crisis," engages with performance and video work from the Arctic that addresses climate warming. It began with my experience as an audience member at Kiinalik: These Sharp Tools during its opening run in the heart of Toronto's queer neighborhood in 2017. The production at Buddies in Bad Times installed itself in my reflection on contemporary and cultural life as an urgent and necessary performance. Its dramaturgy makes often uneasy contributions to engagement with epistemic gaps and rifts between Indigenous and settler communities, decolonization movements, histories, and experiences of climate crises.

The work is part of a new wave of performance by Inuit artists and settler artistic collaborators that bring renewed attention to colonization and history, climate change, and sovereignty activism. For me, Kiinalik opened up a new sense of artists working in coalitional, dramaturgical conversation. This philosophy of approach animates videos by the Isuma Collective, who created new work for the 2019 Venice Biennale on climate change and extractivism in the north. So too collaborations, such as those among dance and interdisciplinary artist Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, Evalyn Parry, Cris Derksen, Jamie Griffiths, Christine Tootoo, and renowned singer and novelist Tanya Tagaq, foregrounding cultural resurgence as well as ongoing extraction and colonization in the north.

The artists' sharp contemporary relevance is amplified in these works' engagements with asymmetries of the north and south (here in reference to the far north and Arctic circle) with contemporary realization that global warming is happening far more quickly in the far north than in the south below the 60th parallel. This journey took me to performances in both my home neighborhood in Toronto and in the northernmost capital city in the world, Iqaluit, Nunavut (fig. 1).

Created by Parry, Laakkuluk, Erin Brubacher, and Elysha Poirier, with Derksen, Kiinalik continues to tour at the time of writing, most recently appearing in the inaugural season of the National Arts Centre's Indigenous Theatre (2019–20), which identifies itself  as the first national Indigenous theatre department globally. Among Kiinalik's powerful contributions are its self-reflective moves to dismantle the structural and institutional silos put in place among practices of story, dance, theatre, media, and music in settler epistemologies. The interweaving of practices takes spectators on a remarkable voyage with the artists, who met during a residency on climate change in the Artic.

Figure 1. Poster at the Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum advertising Kiinalik: These Sharp Tools. Pictured: Evalyn Parry and Laakuluk Williamson Bathory. A Buddies in Bad Times Theatre production hosted by the Qaaggiavuut Society at the Frobisher Inn in Iqaluit, Nunavut. Text in Inuktituk. (Photo: VK Preston.)

As the work unfolds, the artists move across hierarchies of knowledge and the sensorium, entering into personal, cultural, and intergenerational questions that cross histories as well as institutionalized settler distinctions and dramaturgies of nationhood (fig. 2). 

With support from my university in 2018, I was able to travel to Iqaluit to see a rehearsal and performance of the "northern" version of Kiinalik in the subarctic capital city of Iqaluit, Nunavut. There for the first time I met Qaggiavuut Society personnel, as well as students and artists with the Qaggiq School of Performing Arts. Through the Qaggiavuut society, these artists are creating an arts and training center, shaping what they term an "Arctic-specific pedagogy" in a region where colonization's prohibitions on practices have had ongoing, violent impact. My visit followed on the heels of the company's expanded push to develop a performing arts center and hub of creative practice and research oriented to the circum-polar north. The initiative to create this space and venue called the Qaggiq Hub has been gaining considerable momentum.

Figure 2. Evalyn Parry and Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory in Kiinalik: These Sharp Tools. (Photo: Jeremy Mimnagh.)

As a settler scholar working within the university system in the "south," at the center of a long history of material as well as cultural extraction, the works I spent time with while writing this piece have honed a sense of critical reexamination of my own and my family's cultural location, addressing family history, place, and travel that appear in complex tension with the history of forced Inuit displacement, relocation, and settlement in the Arctic and subarctic from the cold war to the 1990s.

In the course of this research, I had the opportunity to sit down with Ellen Hamilton in Iqaluit and later Parry in Toronto. Each meeting shaped a window into the artist's cultural work in their communities, differently grappling with cultural situatedness and voice. Parry's work on what became this performance began as an intensive study of artistic research on the north as a discourse of colonization in arts and music histories, whether in Glenn Gould's The Idea of the North or the folk-music circuit.

That project idea expanded in conversation with Laakkuluk (who prefers to go by first name in this article) after the two artists met on a ship traveling through the Northwest Passage. That journey, as the work's co-creators observe, retraces a history of European colonial ingress into the North American Arctic that has become synonymous with a particular variety of nationalist history, even as it travels through Inuit homelands (fig. 3).

Figure 3. Kiinalik: These Sharp Tools: Laakkuluk's storytelling addressing Inuit tattoos and family story. The scene precedes the artist's remarkable uaajeerneq performance. (Photo: Jeremy Mimnagh.

This research has unavoidably led toward new terms such as "ecological grief," coined to address scientists' reactions to studying ecological crises, but also relevant to communities and artists witnessing the effects of climate change both far and near. The embodied, felt, and precariously shared cultural practices foreground an important local work of cultural renewal with particularly significant local actions as well as international relevance. Climate apprehension as a time-based phenomenon is a cultural force, and it is becoming an experience of everyday life for an increasingly large demographic, planet-wide. 

The works I have found powerful in this process of writing have been those that foreground political and cultural engagements. The artists who have created them include in their process uneasy exposures of consent and artistic practice, reimaginings of once-banned practices and the body. These nonlinear historiographies shaped in practice and performance also foreground critical, creative analyses of ongoing colonial legacies. And these in turn highlight the asymmetrical scope and reach of mining today underway in the circum-polar north. Such are the complex and powerful videos that the Isuma Collective has made of testimony and human rights claims regarding vast mining practices in Baffin Land and climate change in the north: Inuit Knowledge and Climate Change and My Father's Land (Attatama Nunanga), co-directed by Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn (fig. 4). 

Heather Igloliorte, an Inuk curator and art historian who leads multiple initiatives, including a Concordia University research chair in Circumpolar Arts, is among the team of curators responsible for the group exhibition Among All These Tundras.1 Her writing on curation and interventions into the art histories of the far north shape a particularly incisive view of Arctic and subarctic art histories and circum-polar artist communities, and renew senses of histories and practices, whether through soapstone sculpture or video art and interdisciplinary performance, at a moment of robust artistic activity across Nunavut and the circum-polar north.

With the concept I term cryotemporalities in my Theatre Journal essay, I explore embodied senses of time and memory that engage climate change's reordering of temporal experience. This discussion of "ice times" thinks in relation to measurement, anticipation, and prediction as well as in relation to climate anxiety and grief. This approach asks how we grasp or seek to understand our relationship to measures of time anticipating ecological crises and catastrophes, and reflects on how such grapplings may be differently situated locally and globally and in different languages, practices, cultures, and ontologies' shapings of time. For me, these complexly qualitative dimensions include dizzying circulations of estimates and measurements, even as extraction accelerates climate crisis. But they also include dance and poetry, music and song.

Figure 4. A still from Inuit Knowledge and Climate Change created by My Father's Land, by the same collective, also demonstrates the impacts of climate change in the Arctic. (Source: Isuma Distribution International.)

The Isuma Collective's powerful streaming videos and "re-lived cultural dramas" show how artists and communities have been pushing back against charged cultural narratives of temporality and modernity as well as colonization and extractivism, notably in the Digital Indigenous Democracy initiative and During the Venice Biennale 2019, where the group animated the year's Canada Pavilion, the collective streamed works reflecting Inuit observations of the colonization of the Arctic and multinational mining initiatives in ecologically precarious zones to global audiences, also linking these to a retrospective of the collective's body of work at the University of Toronto Art Museum for the inaugural Toronto Biennale.

Co-director Kunuk's insight into recent expansion of mining and extraction in the north addresses local as well as global climate. Warming already unfolds at different rates in the north and the south—and it is unfolding two to three times faster in the Arctic than elsewhere on the planet. As such, questions animating the work carry over and burrow into the reflections of spectators and the communities that embrace its structures of shared insight: shifting historiography as a kind of collective conversation, while fostering examinations of entangled histories and futures in ecological crises that affect north and south at different rates.

Writing across the shifts of the months and years since Kiinalik's 2017 premiere highlights a time of temporal and subjective flux, whether during current Covid-19 self-isolation measures or preparing these supplementary online materials during the Wet'suwet'en crisis over pipelines, rail blockades, and the return of armed police interventions. In these different guises, within short weeks, the precarity of how we conceive shared ecological futures as well as a sustainable political climate and dialogue is at stake, not simply across nations but across respectful relationships between nations and beings past, present, and future. For my part, learning more about cultural resurgence in the north alongside a barrage of news addressing processes of climate warming in Nunavut and Greenland have been personally and intellectually transformative, but inevitably unsettling (fig. 5).

Figure 5. Sea-life dioramas at the Unikkaarvik Visitor Centre in Iqaluit, Nunavut. (Photo: VK Preston.)













Supplementary Sites and Links



Thanks to Alexandra Forand and Jaime Meier for their assistance with this article.


Edward and Bina Ellen Gallery, June 1–August 30, 2019; Onsite Gallery, September 18–December 7, 2019; and MSVU Art Gallery, April 25–June 21, 2020.