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Entries in the north (6)


the Yup'ik Qaspeq

DeeDee Jonrowe at the Huslia checkpoint during the 2015 Iditarod. Photo: Katie Orlinsky

DeeDee Jonroe, above, is wearing a kuspuk, a cotton cover that protects a parka. There was an originary cover made of gut or skin, replaced by cotton when trading posts were established: it is generally acknowledged that in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the calico came from flour and sugar sacks, some plain unbleached cotton, later prints – trade goods brought up the Alaska coast by whaling ships.  Like all traditional dress there are many regional variations, but in general they are loose hooded over-dresses that can be worn on their own in the summer.  Some are straight, some have a dropped flounced skirt.


Yup'ik ice fishing, n.d.

Today, kuspuks have become a garment of Alaskan identity – lots of websites discussing them, selling them – a recovery of peoplehood through clothing.  In this case, in the context of the last couple of weeks of posts here, Métis material culture where often the form is European, but the surface is aboriginal (embroidered, beaded, elaborated), with the kuspuk the form is aboriginal and the surface is European.

This seems fundamentally different to how we understand Métis identity as expressed through its material culture where european forms dominate and surfaces are expressive.  In the kuspuk, surface expression appears merely expeditious, later decorative, but essentially an easily and cheaply produced utility garment.
With the Métis trappers tents, the form was european, the materials were partially introduced – the canvas, partially native – the poles. The Métis tradition that has survived in everyday life today is the toque. Like the kuspuk which I’ve even seen (rarely it has to be said) on the streets in Calgary, these are contemporary garments. However, I don't think Métis when I see a toque.

Kuspuks today.


Tanya Tagaq: Nanook of the North, 2012

Amid all the flurry of Tanya Tagaq's soundtrack to a re-issue of Robert Flaherty's 1923 silent film, Nanook of the North, here is an earlier video where she explains throat singing.  She appears to be in the British Museum, an interesting post-colonial meeting of ancient cultures, hers a bit older than the one in the background.

And here is a short excerpt of her performance at TIFF First Peoples 2012, accompanying the screening of Nanook of the North.

Flaherty's view of the north, based on laughing children and naive hunters bringing pelts in to a Hudson's Bay post, was famous and deeply patronising. 

Tagaq's soundtrack (composed by Derek Charke, with Tagaq and musicians Jesse Zubot and Jean Martin), the power of the voice, the chords, the sound of the wind and the animals, goes a long way to undercut the paternalism of Flaherty's gaze.  Tagaq's is a complex post-colonial project: to walk forward to encounter the colonial past and, while protecting, even feeding, the subjects of the film, to reveal the ethnographic expoitation of the filmmaker.  It is complex because although the Inuit in the film are real, this first film that showed how they lived was completely constructed by Flaherty. 

I saw Nanook of the North a long time ago, in the ealy 90s, and had to watch it in two minds: one saw the people, the other saw the ways that 'the people' were being made palatable to the film-going public through a sentimental narrative that goes, still, to the heart of attempts at reconciliation culminating in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report released this week.  The more we see the truly tragic little people sitting at their desks in their Residential Schools, being so good, and so sad, the more they seem to obliterate the images of their descendents who are still struggling: not as photogenic, more present as some work at keeping one's alleys free of bottles, others get their PhDs.  The great awakening of the Canadian public to Residential Schools (why they needed awakening is a mystery as almost every community in Canada knew precisely where the school was) has, I fear, awakened a sentimentality that does not lead anyone out of the woods. 

Here, in all its endless insult is Flaherty's Nanook of the North:



Frédéric Chaubin's USSR

The architecture faculty at Minsk polytechnic, with a succession of overhanging lecture theatres. Minsk, Belarus, 1983. Photographer: Frédéric ChaubinAbove: the architecture building at Minsk Polytechnic.  I would not be surprised had this been a photo taken on any Canadian campus.

Frédéric Chaubin documents 90 soviet-era buildings in a new book, Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed (CCCP- get it?).  Some of the images are on the Guardian website, with the introduction:
'They reveal an unexpected rebirth of imagination, a burgeoning that took place from 1970 until 1990 and in which, contrary to the 20s and 30s, no school or main trend emerges.  These building represent a chaotic impulse brought about by a decaying system.  Their diversity announces the end of the Soviet Union.'

I find this commentary both spurious and confused.  1970 was a long way from 1989, must we continue to believe that Stalinism reigned implacable and as solid as concrete until the wall fell, and any sign of architectural exploration was necessarily aberrant and subversive?  The relationship of architecture to political systems is rarely thought of outside the use of buildings as deliberately partisan symbols which, as most architects in practice know, is the least of a building's form.

In that architecture is a cultural product and as such comprises an archive of cultural systems, yes, one can point to the transparency of the International Style of the 1950s and 1960s as part of the USA's optimistic demonstration of its 'openness' in comparison to Soviet 'closedness', but the architects of such projects were not building political manifestos, they were absorbed in the exploration of curtain wall technology. 
And since when is diversity seen as chaotic?  The language used when speaking of the Soviet Union is still so slanted it makes one wonder if the Cold War is actually over.  


Yakutsk, Sakha Republic, Russia: 62°N

Yakutsk, Russia. 2010211,000 people, mining centre, cold weather, twinned with Yellowknife.  On the Lena River, a mining town from the late 19th century rapidly developed under Stalin along with the development of forced labour camps in Siberia.  It is the largest city built on permafrost. Looks slick. Evidently that is a new bank building reflecting the northern sky.

We don't have such populations in the Canadian north.  Yellowknife (62°N)has 19,000 people.  Fort McMurray (56°N) has 77,000 and  was a small village until the late 60s when the Suncor plant was built.  Both towns sprawl a bit.  I've had the image, below, of Braatsk for several years and can't remember where I found it, but it shows a city that is significantly urban.  Braatsk is at 56°N, population 260,000, looks like Paris.

Braatsk, Siberia


Lateral Office's Prix de Rome

Lateral Office. Emergent North, 2010The Canada Council has announced this year's Prix de Rome: it is Lateral Office, Lola Sheppard and Mason White, who have proposed a research project called Emergent North.  They are off to Nunavut, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories, Alaska and Greenland to find and document northern settlements: 'the public realm, civic space, landscape and infrastructure emerging from a unique geography'.

Good, and grand.  At last a Prix de Rome which is not dependent on going off to Europe or Asia, and while we are at it, might we also not shed the colonial name Prix de Rome and call it Prix d'Ottawa?

There are three components of Lateral's proposal.  In Ice Road Truck Stops, ice road reinforcement mesh acts as a self-maintaining road building process and a support habitat for lake fish. 
Caribou Pivot Stations are installations which provide feeding oases for migrating caribou (which find it hard uncover moss and lichen under an increasing number of ice layers in the snow pack).  These micro-climates are made by a building which manipulates snow and wind to keep a clear feeding field throughout the winter. 
Liquid Commons is a water-borne education system of school boats that operate between eleven Nunavut settlements: the opposite to the aggregate medical and educational facilities in the north that draw people out of their communities to a central hub.

The projects are a combination of ecological, social and infrastructural propositions.  Yes there are physical things drawn out that one could call buildings, but which really are less relevant than the ambitions of each proposal.  This is profoundly political architecture, moving the very definition of architecture from stylish spatial modulations of surface – especially in the north of metal siding in bright colours, to charts of concerns and how they might be addressed.

I think it is the first significant and independent Prix de Rome we have had.


Marilyn Bowering

Marilyn Bowering. Visible Worlds.  Harper Collins 1997
Paterson Ewen.  Halley's Comet as seen by Giotto, 1979.

Most memorable image of this book is of a woman skiing over the North Pole from Russia to Canada.There are twins, in a Winnipeg immigrant family, one joins the Nazis in Germany, the other is locked in a struggle with something – I'm not sure – but he does think a lot.  And then there is Nathaniel Bone.  This is a book in the wide-ranging tradition of Canadian literature where the story covers an enormously complex world of multiply connected and layered stories.
Bowering is a poet, first, and her writing although prose is a long, beautiful extended poem where time and narrative are endlessly fluid.  Meanwhile Fika checks her bearings and moves on after chipping ice from her skis.  She is the background, her epic journey, to everyone else's complex histories of emigration, loss and displacement.
Richard Bingham, the cover designer, but a Paterson Ewen painting on the cover.  Ewen is a strange fellow, most of his very large paintings are made by grinding lines in sheets of plywood with a router, then painting over the sheet, routing a few more lines, adding some paint.  They are like huge wood blocks after much printing.  The work is passionate and muscular, magical and haunting.  It is a good tough accompaniment to Bowering's poetic, detailed complexity.