Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Portage: The Lost Trader

"Ya gotta be crazy to carry a canoe in this heat," a passerby says as he watches Jason Fielding portage up the steep stairs to the Hotel MacDonald from the river valley below. No kidding. Especially when you're kitted out in full fur-trader duds complete with fur-lined boots and a coonskin cap. Here is our 1970's grade school textbook illustration come to life in the Edmonton city centre at 30 degrees Celsius in the shade. I was one of four paparazzi documenting the event. As I snap photos, a voice in my head creates captions: "the voyageur at rest," "the voyageur snacking on high protein pemmican", and "the fur trader waits for a green light." As Fielding carries the canoe from one body of water to another, he creates a picturesque endurance performance. Jason's piece fits very well into the theme of this year's Visualeyz festival, because it's all about water--travelling from the North Saskatchewan River to the fountain and pool at City Hall illustrates the natural and artificial--the wild and the domesticated in this Albertan city. Much of the city's water system is hidden, and Jason's piece made me very aware of the urban plumbing that is such an integral part of urban life. How many sewer lines did we cross, I wondered in those few blocks we traveled from the hotel MacDonald to City Hall.

The artist performed age-old gestures: opening a leather pouch and wrapping a piece of pemmican pulled from a leather bag, scanning the river bank with one hand shading the eyes. However, the setting was not pure wilderness, but strikingly urbane. Joggers on their lunch break grinned and let him pass or frowned and pushed by, putting their leisure time to "good use" for the working of the body/machine. Women in stilettos and tight business suits snapped photos on cell phones. One man joked about seeing "Mr. Canoe Head" walking down the street. Negotiating pedestrians and traffic was tricky with Fielding's reduced sightlines. His partner, also a paparazzo, worked as a third eye, protecting the artist and the audience from any accidents.

Once at the city hall plaza, Fielding took off his outer layer, and cooled off his body in the fountains. Next, he took water bottles he'd created his own labels for and laid them out on a beaver skin to sell and trade. The festival guide describes the bottles containing 'pure, pristine water from the Canadian Rockies'. The label features a painterly picture of the artist as a romantic figure from Canada's heritage. A little pile of coins and objects accrued as people took bottles of water and Jason ended the performance by sitting in his canoe and giving water to people--in particular a busking break dancer and a man collecting empty bottles and drink containers for change. This image brings up essential issues of around value of water. What is the cost of managing or mismanaging our water resources in the era of climate change?

I assume Fielding's performance is informed by the piece Terrence Houle and Trevor Freeman did at the Live Biennial in Vancouver called Portage. How are the pieces different? Houle is a member of the First Blood nation and Fielding not M├ętis or native, but is of European descent. As artists/audience members we were all mumbling our worries about appropriation after the performance. Then it struck me later that as a person of European descent I was able to enter the piece and feel implicated in its underlying message, rather than keeping my distance as I may have otherwise. For me, the tone becomes less satirical, more romantic with a dark undertow, like the sewer beneath the fountain. Fielding has an eye for painterly posing and as a result, he create a persona that is romantic, even a bit sexy. However, when you think about the reality of our European ancestors trading small-pox ridden blankets for fur, and the lack of fresh drinking water on a number of reservations, the reality is shameful. In March 2008, there were 53 boil water advisories issued in aboriginal communities in Canada. (

The very idea of "wilderness" makes us think of an unlimited supply of pure water, but the way our population is growing and using the resources threatens that. As an "upstream province", Alberta in particular carries its burden of responsibility for the management of its water resources. Robert William Sanford explains the concept of banked water as ground water, glacial water, etc. in his book Water, Weather, and the Mountain West, published in 2007 by Rocky Mountain Books. (I reccommend it as a textbook for this festival.) Population growth, irrigation, urban sprawl and other factors are depleting stored water systems, including Alberta's glaciers. There is a tension to Jason's piece about the distance between two particular sources of water that acts as a metaphor to the stress we're becoming aware of in terms of the effect global warming will also have on Alberta's rich stores of "banked" water. Who will control the water, and what will the trade-off be for those who can't afford to buy glacial spring water in plastic bottles? What will happen to those communities, many of them reservations, who don't have access to clean drinking water right now? What does the fur trader torn from the pages of our fading textbooks and lost in the city think of these questions?

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