Duane Linklater and Hrag Vartanian

The following is the transcript from a conversation between Filmmaker Duane Linklater and Hrag Vartanian, Founder/ Editor of Hyperallergic, that occurred after the screening of Brian Jungen and Duane Linklater's film Modest Livelihood at NYU. This conversation was held on 2 February 2017, on the occasion of Duane Linklater, solo exhibition From Our Hands, at 80WSE, 7 December 2016 - 18 February 2017.


Hrag Vartanian: In the film, you seem like you’re riffing on the landscape traditions and I’m wondering if you can speak a little bit on that, was it a conscious decision?

Duane Linklater: Just to preface my response, this is a collaborative film, a collaborative artwork. So I’m speaking half for something, you know what I mean? I’m only speaking as one person out of two that made the artwork.

But there were many common interests that Brian and I had, that helped the film develop as a collaborative project. One of the things that we were mutually interested in, was this idea of the pictorial, or the idea of long takes, and what those long takes might suggest within the context of the film and into a larger conversation around what long takes suggest in documentary filmmaking and the history of documentary filmmaking. We were interested in developing a language, and part of that language was letting the camera run. Letting the camera sort of absorb the landscape.

That became really important for us. Things that we have in common are our love for the land this is shot in, Northeastern British Columbia in Treaty 8 territory, which is Brian’s home territory. And I’m a Treaty 9 person, he’s a Dane-zaa person and I’m a Cree person, and there are some differences, but again this idea about mutual, common things. Brian and I grew up in these different places, but very much our families were hunting moose, to put it simply, and still do. There’s a particular role I play and that I perform in the film which is a person that is not from that area, but the position is also indigenous, I am a Cree person, as I said, and I am, for lack of a better term, a guest of Brian and a guest of Jack, who is the elderly gentleman.

HV: Do you want to explain for those who may not understand who Jack is?

DL: Jack is the cowboy-looking dude. He’s a pretty amazing older gentleman. He’s the one who, at the beginning of the film, really took me in. And he’s Brian’s uncle, so there’s a family connection there to the land. Essentially in the first half of the film, it’s Jack showing us, showing Brian, showing me, telling stories of his life in that particular area. He has spent decades, his whole life, in that territory hunting and trapping and living his life. So we would stop, he would say, 'you know, I hunted here at this time and caught so many moose at that time.' So we would stop – you can see us talking – and he would tell us stories about his experiences there, so there is something really important about transmission of knowledge generationally. Of course my position is a bit different, as I’m not family, but I am another indigenous person that was allowed to come into the territory that they brought me in and gave me permission to be there. I think that’s an important part of the film, at least from my position as someone coming from Treaty 9.

HV: People might not realize that that permission is not done legally though, as it should have been the Province giving you that permission, so there’s a transgression that takes place in that as well.

DL: Exactly, Exactly.

That’s an important thing to talk about because I didn’t seek the permission of British Columbia to hunt, I sought the permission of that family in Treaty 8 to take part in that activity. As an indigenous person this idea of building relationships from indigenous person to indigenous person seems…re-watching this film and thinking about the work that’s in 80WSE right now as well as other projects I’ve done, there’s something important about that relationship, that primary relationship, as I call it, from indigenous person to indigenous person. It becomes this really crucial thing for me in my thinking and again with this film, working with Brian and working with his family and being able to undertake that activity is something we took terribly, very, very seriously.

HV: I’d love for you to talk a little bit about documentary film making. A lot of people might not know that the first documentary film was actually about an indigenous person, or indigenous people. Nanook of the Northwas probably the first images of indigenous people that many people around the world saw. So the whole genre of documentary film is very tied to representation of indigenous people because of that, as well as other films. I’m wondering how you negotiated that in making a documentary.

DL: We were very aware, the both of us, of the histories of filmmaking, particularly the histories of documentary filmmaking. That film is the first documentary film in existence and it wanted to show a truth about indigenous people, but it ends up being this sort of wild misrepresentation of Inuk people in the north. But that kind of film making, that misrepresentation of indigenous people within the context of documentary filmmaking continues. You can identify a lineage of films that come up to very recent history.

When you’re making work, we we’re making our film against those things, that wasn’t our intent, but certainly we’re aware of these films, especially in Canada, where there is an interest from the National Film Board of Canada of making documentaries about Canadian life in general. A big part of that movement of NFB filmmaking in Canada was making films about ingenious people again; there’s one particular film that were interested in, Cree Hunters of Mistassini. Mistassini is an area in Quebec and this film from 1974 is an objective observation of Cree life in that particular territory and follows a few families throughout the land. But there are also conversations about films like Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles and Edward Curtis’ In the Land of the Head Hunters. There are conversations about these films that indigenous people are having and they are extracting very important ideas that are coming out of those films. They are extracting the hidden agencies that are occurring within those films and I think that those types of conversations about documentary filming making is crucial.

I know that there are people in the room here who think deeply about these things and make work that addresses this long history of documentary film. It’s just one form of misrepresentation of indigenous people, but its pervasive and consistent. It’s difficult to contend with the persistence of films about indigenous people that misrepresent them and that create narratives about us and around us. What they do is recuperate a narrative that suits their own narratives, or state narratives, a “Canadian” narrative.

HV: You talk about the National Film Board of Canada, and a lot of those films were about creating a Canadian identity, which was in opposition to other identities, and representing itself in different ways.

DL: It’s a terribly important thing to say that the NFB was mobilized to reflect a particular kind of inclusivity about Canadian Identity, and of course there is all sorts of animation and there are some great films, but it’s also contributed to this crazy identity of what Canada is and what Canadian means. I should say, as a side note, I don’t consider myself Canadian. As an indigenous person, as a Cree person that grew up and is part of a long lineage of people from a particular area, we’ve been, by European estimates, in that area eight to ten thousand years, so that is my context. This year Canada is celebrating 150 years of identity, so this discrepancy becomes….150 years compared to ten thousand years…there’s a big difference there. They’re really good about celebrating, they’ve poured millions of dollars into 2017 to celebrate 150 years of whatever that identity might be. Part of that identity is being very polite, it’s important to talk about the humor that surrounds Canadian identity, but it’s also important to talk about how that humor has been wielded to shield Canada’s behavior towards indigenous people. My family where I come from has suffered violence from Canada, extreme violence in different ways. So this film and the work that I make is, in many ways, resistant to this identity, resistant to those forms…the “Canadian-ness” that I know is very different. This film articulates a kind of position that is not necessarily against it, but it articulates a position, and many positions, of indigeneity and the discourse that we are trying to create around ourselves. This is an opportunity, tonight, to talk about this discourse specifically in a Modest Livelihood, to discuss our treaty rights, our hunting rights. To discuss our cultural activities and those persistence activities that we need to keep, as they say, to make sure that those activities are repeated, and repeated by generations ahead. When I was watching it tonight, it had a different kind of feeling as there are all sorts of things happening around us right now--I think that there’s something about the stakes. What is at stake? For me these activities are at stake, because of this orange man that’s there, this dangerous man. There are things happening at Standing Rock that he is directly implicated into, because of his thinking and how he has evolved in his 70 years. These activities are at stake. It’s important for me to talk about this particular activity as one position of indigeneity. These activities require each other for these identities to exist. This particular activity of hunting, it sustains us in ways that are difficult to talk about and single out.

HV: What do you mean when you use the word keep? Because one of the themes in your work is resources and resource extraction and how that works…

DL: It’s me thinking in Cree and translating a certain phrase in Cree while I’m talking. There’s a word we use to describe something that we think is important. It’s describing an action, it’s a verb, it’s wielding in a particular way as it relates to people or relates to things. So when I think about these certain activities like hunting and dancing, material culture and ceremonial activities out on the land, that word is active in relation to those indigenous activities because those are the ones that kept us alive. Those activities sustained us before the Europeans came here and they will keep sustaining us indefinitely. All of this is at stake. I’m speaking at Trump, but there has been a long, long history of resource extraction in my territory as well. A lot of the roads you see us traveling on were made by oil and gas companies that developed and created these roads to access Brian’s home territory’s oil and gas. You can see the actual oil structures, as they literally are in our way as we see what we are after. We have to run around them. There is a lot of oil and gas activity particularly in Brian’s territory of northeastern British Columbia. There’s an entire network of roads and access points. What I learned by spending time there with Brian is that the community uses those access roads for hunting and trapping. Those access roads have disturbed the natural balance of that system.

HV: It’s part of a bigger network of violence on the landscape. I’m going to ask one more. Can you talk about why you choose, all of you, to keep the film silent? Or to make it silent?

DL: Sure. The story is that we had about 50 hours of footage. It was done over two trips, one in the fall and one in the winter, about two weeks of footage. The footage was transferred from film, super 16mm, to digital and then put on two hard drives. One was sent to Brain and one sent to me, and we developed this idea to look at all 50 hours of footage independently and not talk to each other . Took about 6-8 weeks. Independently, we had this idea that silence could be an important and deliberate part of this film. We did capture sound when we were out on the land but silence is a way of protecting ourselves, what Jack was a saying, things that were occurring on the land. Those were reasons for choosing deliberate silence in the film. There is something really important too, with the long takes and lulls, that I feel when watching, there is a meditation that occurs. It’s watching, being a participant of watching the film, but also at the same time that happens when you are hunting. There is a lot of standing around, you know, you’re bored, you’re waiting. There are moments when you get into this reflective… you can see it on the faces, you see it on Jack and you see it on myself, see it in Brian, this reflection and meditation.

We show this film as an artwork, and it’s important to say that it usually loops in a gallery. When we show the work in galleries we try to make it as dark as possible and as quiet as possible to provide a particular place for this meditation to happen if one wishes. There’s something important about that quietness. It’s not complete silence here…I can hear the fan, I can hear some of you shuffling around. I’ve done this before and screened it with people and I’ve become accustomed to when people shuffle around at certain times. It’s quite consistent when we shoot the moose, when that part of the film takes place you hear the shuffle. It’s the discomfort there. It’s important for me to say as half of this project, great care was taken in that part. We had, mutually again, the idea of love for that animal. Love and respect for the animal. We wish to articulate that in material, in the way in which the film is edited, because the process was about five hours and we shot the whole thing, and you only see about ten minutes. There is a great mutual respect for Brian and I and also respect for the animal.

Duane Linklater is Omaskêko Cree from Moose Cree First Nation in Northern Ontario. Born in 1976, he holds bachelor's degrees in fine art and Native studies from the University of Alberta (2005) and a master's degree in film and video from the Milton Avery Graduate School of Arts at Bard College (2012).Solo exhibitions include; From Our Hands, Mercer Union, a centre for contemporary art, Toronto (2016); Salt 11: Duane Linklater, Utah Museum of Fine Arts, Salt Lake City (2015); ICA@50: It means it’s raining, ICA, Philadelphia (2014); Decom­mi­ssion, Maclaren Art Cen­tre, Bar­rie, Ontario; Learn­ing, Susan Hobbs Gallery, Toronto; Some­thing about encounter, Thun­der Bay Art Gallery, Ontario; Grain(s), in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Tanya Lukin Lin­klater, Images Fes­ti­val co-pre­sen­ta­tion with Museum of Con­tem­po­rary Cana­dian Art, Toronto; and Sec­ondary Expla­na­tion, The New Gallery, Cal­gary (all 2013).

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic, a publication he created in 2009 in response to the changes in the art world, publishing, and the distribution of information. Breaking news, award-winning reporting, informed opinions, and quality conversations about art have helped Hyperallergic reach over 1 million readers a month. In addition, he has curated projects, exhibitions and has organized public events since 1997. Beyond his writing, he is an avid photographer and collector of photographs. He is committed to serious, playful, and radical storytelling that pushes the boundaries of writing.