Sharply comic canoe trip explores cultural misunderstanding at Richmond World Festival

Terrance Houle and Lisa Birke’s new multimedia work, Different Ways, provokes through laughter

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      It’s a painful, poignant, and yet wildly comical image: interdisciplinary artists Terrance Houle and Lisa Birke in a canoe, each facing a different direction and paddling in mad, pointless circles. Given that Houle is Indigenous, the son of a Blackfoot mother and an Ojibwa father, and that Birke is a northern European blond, born in Germany but raised on Vancouver Island, a more perfect visual representation of cultural misunderstanding would be difficult to imagine.

      Houle and Birke’s boating excursion is the culmination of Different Ways, the multistranded, multisite performance piece that the two are bringing to the Your Kontinent Digital Carnival at this weekend’s Richmond World Festival—an extravaganza that also features a multicultural variety of music and dance troupes, including the Vancouver Cantonese Opera, Karen Flamenco, and the Vashaan Ensemble. But there’s a lot of freight to unpack from that canoe—and from Different Ways, which will end in the fountain at Minoru Park after opening with a solo excerpt from Houle’s theremin-driven Ghost Days at the Richmond Art Gallery. The piece also includes video clips narrated and animated by First Nations participants in workshops held coast to coast—real-life stories of racial injustice and recovery from the same.

      For Houle—who’s been bridging cultures all his life, as a skateboarding urban aboriginal, Alberta College of Art and Design grad, and powwow dancer—Different Ways is a means of physicalizing heady conceptual meditations on Native and settler ways of being.

      “I guess for me part of it is that I got really tired of constantly being literal, and having to tell people, like, ‘Wake the fuck up!’ ” he tells the Straight from Calgary, where he’s about to shoot the final video component of Different Ways—an underwater view of the Bow River, which will be projected around him during his RAG performance. “That gets tiring. It gets really tiring. So I think we’re using art and having to use humour and sadness and tragedy and all of these sort of devices to make people figure it out on their own. ’Cause I can’t hold their hand anymore—and that includes Lisa.

      “I know how Indigenous I am,” he adds. “But the idea of Indigeneity is an umbrella that includes so many people. What’s great about this project, working with Lisa, is that people come away with their own ideas of things.…It’s making them look retrospectively into their own lives and their own history, whatever it is.”

      Fittingly, part of Birke’s rationale for initiating the project is her desire to more appropriately situate herself in her adopted country—a country that her earlier videos portray as charged with both beauty and violence.

      “I really became aware that I was a settler body representing myself within the quote-unquote grand Canadian landscape,” she says, on the line from her Saskatoon home. “And that became more and more problematic for me, because I am really displaying the beauty of the landscape—and I really do believe that it’s beautiful and the landscape has a lot of power. I really connect with nature. But then there’s also that paradox that in placing my body in this landscape, from a picturesque perspective, what is it that I’m actually doing or representing there?”

      Tied into Different Ways’ web of theory and experience are notions of linear and nonlinear time, with different Canadian rivers—including the Bow, the Fraser, and the South Saskatchewan, which runs through Saskatoon—expressing both European notions of linearity and Indigenous ways of understanding nonlinear or cyclical ecosystems. And then there’s the canoe, which symbolizes the system of trade that opened the Canadian interior to generations of settlers, but that has since become an instrument of peaceful, almost meditative recreation. And, of course, the canoe is a signature example of Indigenous technology, while the theremin that Houle will use in his introductory performance is a European invention—but he’s using it to conjure the voices of protective ancestral spirits.

      In Different Ways, artists Lisa Birke and Terrance Houle conjure a history of cultural conflict and settler apathy.
      Scott McGovern video still

      The beauty of Different Ways, though, is that all of its complex content can be grasped intuitively as well as intellectually, and both Houle and Birke agree that humour is the key.

      “For my own practice, I think it makes us stop for a second,” Birke says. “As soon as you laugh you have an emotional response, and you’re very aware of what it is that you’re watching. And then you have to question why you’re laughing, especially if the subject matter is difficult.…It makes the viewer an active participant in the viewing. It implicates the viewer, because once you laugh, you’re responding in a very visceral and physical manner to what you’re seeing—especially with performance art.”

      “You can laugh and cry,” Houle says, alluding to both the absurdist elements of their performance and the tragic consequences of the colonial system. “They’re kind of the same thing."

      Terrance Houle and Lisa Birke present Different Ways at the Richmond Art Gallery and Minoru Park on Friday and Saturday (August 31 and September 1) as part of the Your Kontinent Digital Carnival at the Richmond World Festival.