Taking Up Space: An Interview with the Wood Land School

Oct 30, 2017 5:30 pm

In 2011, Duane Linklater, who is Omaskêko Ininiwak from Moose Cree First Nation, was a candidate at Bard College’s low-residency MFA program, which convenes on campus in the summer. Between these sessions, he kept a studio above a gas station’s convenience store in Nipissing First Nation in Northern Ontario. His work received little institutional interest at the time, so he endeavored to develop a context for it and for that of artists he admired. He invited artists Tanya Lukin Linklater, Walter Scott, Raymond Boisjoly, and David Horvitz to send him “modest contributions,” which he installed as a group exhibition in his studio alongside his own work. The Wood Land School was born.

Since then, Wood Land School has appeared at venues including Art Metropole in Toronto, Or Gallery in Vancouver, and the Banff Centre in Alberta. Linklater is the group’s core member, but he works collaboratively to cultivate relationships among and across Indigenous groups.  

For all of 2017 Montreal’s SBC Gallery has turned over its exhibition space to the Wood Land School. The yearlong program, “Kahatenhstánion tsi na’tetiatere ne Iotohrkó:wa tánon Iotohrha / Drawing Lines from January to December,” manifested as four distinct “Gestures”: three exhibitions at SBC and one offsite project at documenta 14.

I spoke with Linklater and two of his collaborators, Tanya Lukin Linklater and curator cheyanne turions, as they reflected on this ambitious project.  

SEAN J PATRICK CARNEY  Wood Land School has manifested in numerous formats. What is its overall mission?

DUANE LINKLATER  From the beginning, we have aimed to create conditions and spaces for ourselves as Indigenous people and Indigenous artists. I don’t see Wood Land School as a curatorial gesture, but as a project driven by artists. Each iteration is different in geography and tone. We address specific concerns in each space.

CHEYANNE TURIONS  I want to stake out an emotional history for Wood Land School. Duane conjured something into being. It’s important to remember how humbly it began but how serious Duane was about creating an independent space. I’ve been in and out of the core group, but that’s one of its characteristics. Because every iteration involves new constellations of people, it has taken different shapes and forms. Wood Land School can be whatever it needs to be. It responds to a specific moment in time, and adapts to a specific location.

CARNEY  It sounds like nimbleness and responsiveness are integral aspects of Wood Land School. Is that true as well for something as situated and fixed as the yearlong project at SBC Gallery?  

TANYA LUKIN LINKLATER  In a way, yes. Duane gathers a group of people to respond both to the present moment and to history. He had already been in conversation with Pip Day, curator and director at SBC. In our initial discussion, Duane, cheyanne, and I were thinking deeply about the loss of artist Annie Pootoogook, about her life and her legacy. Conversation and response are integral to our practice. We were able to respond to this moment by showing Pootoogook’s work.

CARNEY  In the project statement you ask: “What does it mean for a settler-colonial institution to unknow its power?” Is that a broader question about the systemic silencing and erasure of Indigenous people? Or is it directed at SBC specifically? I imagine it’s both.

LINKLATER  We were careful about language in that text. We wanted to question what we are doing in our positions, and also what others are doing in theirs. Those questions are directed at ourselves, at the institution we’re presently working with, and at institutions now interested in Indigenous contemporary art. I think the latter question is relevant to larger Canadian, American, and international institutions because I can safely assume that they have, for the most part, ignored Indigenous people.

TURIONS  Pip Day is someone we know and trust. All three of us have been in dialogue with her for many years. Basic relationships, intimacy, and trust are part of what makes a project like this possible. It is important to foreground that. There had to be mutual trust between us and Pip. And Pip’s board had to trust and support her in an extremely radical venture.

LINKLATER  I really admire Pip for the work that she and her team have done throughout this entire year.

TURIONS  It’s been incredible. Part of Duane’s method is to ask for, and take up, more space. This is the way that I’ve written the history in my head—I have no idea if this is actually what happened—but Pip asked Duane to do an exhibition. Duane responded, “Well, I’m going to need your space for a year, and all your money.”

CARNEY  That sounds like the right way to ask for more space. I’m impressed with SBC’s own willingness to be nimble.

LINKLATER  Pip was fully committed and seemed willing to take the risk. I didn’t see it as a risk at first, but rather as something that had to be done. We invited others into the project in an effort to make it poetic and generative. It couldn’t have been just me. Looking back now, I see the risks that we all took.

LUKIN LINKLATER  A commitment to experimentation is part of Pip’s curatorial practice. She recognized that it was a chain of relationships that allowed this project to unfold. I appreciate Duane’s statements about the history of the project and how the Wood Land School could not have happened without collective work.

CARNEY  “First Gesture” began with a single work, Annie Pootogook’s drawing Coleman Stove with Robin Hood Flour and Tenderflake (2003-2004). It was displayed in an otherwise empty gallery for a period of time. Additional works were then introduced one by one. Can you talk about that decision?

TURIONS  We’d begun, philosophically and emotionally, with Annie’s work. It made sense for us to begin the project’s public programs with her. For a time, that piece was alone in the space. Its force was incredible. It laid the foundation. We then slowly brought in other master-artists.

LUKIN LINKLATER  Alanis Obomsawin’s Christmas at Moose Factory (1971) was the second work. That very significant film speaks to the legacy of Indian residential schools. It features animation based on drawings that Indigenous students made about what happens when they go home to the reservation for Christmas. We put master-artists like Annie, Alanis, and Brian Jungen into conversation, while also speaking to histories in Canada and across Turtle Island.

CARNEY  How did the “Third Gesture,” your offsite iteration at documenta 14, come about?

LINKLATER  Sepake Angiama, head of education for documenta 14, visited us at SBC in February. She was friendly and easygoing; someone who wanted to make a relationship.

LUKIN LINKLATER  When Sepake visited,  Layli Long Soldier was reading poems, specifically written for the exhibition, about certain histories in Canada and the United States. We were invited to develop a workshop for Documenta’s “Under the Mango Tree series,” which addressed shifts in contemporary education. But teaching is not really a part of our practice. So we made an exhibition.

LINKLATER  We decided to see this as an extension of what we had already been doing in Montreal.

LUKIN LINKLATER  We packed everything we could into our luggage. Candice Hopkins, one of Documenta’s curators, prepared a space for us inside of a train station there.

CARNEY  Whose work did you bring?

TURIONS  In addition to a collaborative performance led by Tanya, we included a video by Elisa Harkins and Nathan Young, a textile piece by Charlene Vickers, Maggie Groat’s risograph Perpetual Calendar, a drawing that Jeneen Frei Njootli made for me, and an unverified print from Joshim Kakagamic that is part of Duane’s personal collection. Going to Europe was an opportunity to ask what it means for us to be elsewhere. 

CARNEY  “Fourth Gesture” is currently on view at SBC Gallery. Does Wood Land School still feel like a series of continuous questions, or is it more concrete after being situated in this space for twelve months?

LINKLATER  I’m always preoccupied with future positions, geographies, or spaces, but I’m critical of myself about this. It’s important that we reflect on this year and take stock of our ability to be responsive as a group. We must ask whether this project was important, and if it will be in the future. Our ability to move around, to remain unfixed does feel important. But I’m going to need some time to sort through this experience, which is the longest of any of Wood Land School’s durations.

CARNEY  Are you feeling optimistic about the future? 

TURIONS  Let’s return to the question, “What does it mean for a settler-colonial institution to unknow its power?” If you consider the institutional future of SBC Gallery, the answers to that question are yet to be fully articulated. The folks at SBC have been generous with us and the project is in many ways a collaboration. But the systemic changes—which that unknowing would entail—can only be enacted along a larger timeline. I’m optimistic about the continual force of these kinds of projects for the future, but everything in history tells me I should be deeply pessimistic. I guess we’ll wait and see.

LUKIN LINKLATER  We are calling for structural change, but there are also relational aspects of the project that I believe will extend beyond SBC. Since the beginning, Duane has focused on developing Indigenous-to-Indigenous relationships. Those will extend into the future whether there are structural changes or not.

LINKLATER  We hope to change the structure of the institution itself because that is necessary if we are to do something meaningful, poetic, and interesting there. A project like this was possible because the institution and its people were willing to unknow the power they yield. This applies to all institutions, especially those in countries that have historically and violently excluded and displaced Indigenous people. Now, we’re being invited back into cultural institutions under conditions that haven’t changed that much—colonial conditions, art world conditions. Does that seem appropriate?

LUKIN LINKLATER  The future of SBC isn’t up to the Wood Land School. That labor and that structural change will have to be taken up by the director, the curator, and by the institution itself. I’m hopeful, but I also know the limitations of this project. It has a specific duration and takes place in a specific location. Wood Land School itself must be constantly renegotiated.

TURIONS  The project shouldn’t be understood as a model that can be used at other institutions. It is not meant to be reproducible. This is not a solution to anything. It is, by design, intensely specific.