November 17, 2015: Lilian Mengesha

A Different Kind of Cont(r)act:
Building a Record of the Missing in Rebecca Belmore’s Vigil 

This talk is concerned with the following question: how does one build a record of disappearance through a medium, like performance, that troubles the foundations of traditional record keeping? To answer this question, I examine a 2002 performance entitled Vigil by Anishanaabe artist Rebecca Belmore. On a street corner in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, the artist nailed her red gown to a wooden electric pole. Belmore nails her dress repeatedly, and then tears her body away from the fabric, until there is nothing left of the material and we only see Belmore in her under garments. This is the same downtown intersection where First Nations and Aboriginal women haunt the sidewalks looking for ways to survive, often times by participating in sex work. Many of these women have gone missing, were murdered or have disappeared. The precarious labor of many of these workers lands them in a tight paradox: they are both publicly recognizable and spectacularly visible yet invisible, or negligible, when it comes to securing their protection and safety in the economic sphere. Belatedly, in 2014, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police reported a total of 1,181 missing and murdered women between 1980-2012. This amount is staggering given that Aboriginal women make up 10% of the homicides in Canada, yet they are only 3% of Canada’s total population. What these percentages tell us is that First Nations and Aboriginal women are often forced to occupy some of the most precarious social positions in order to survive. These disappearances and murders are at the heart of Belmore’s performance and we see her persistence in questioning where they might be.

The redundancy of Belmore’s hammering asks audiences, both local and otherwise, to consider the relationship between time and action differently, repetitively, as a measurement that is a function of syncopation. Rebecca Schneider’s concept of syncopated time asks “what is the time of the live act when a live act is reiterative” arguing that live acts happen “then” as well as “now” (Performance Remains 37). How do Belmore’s actions in the live moment, through a reiterative act of putting her body at this intersection stretch time or stretch through time to recall the “then” of disappearance prior to the performance? This talk will trace these genealogies of time and redundancy to reconsider a different kind of contact between life and death, particularly through Indigenous worldviews, as well as a different kind of shared agreement that the action of nailing might suggest.

Lilian Mengesha is a PhD Candidate in Theater and Performance Studies at Brown University. Her dissertation, tentatively titled Hard to See: Disappearance, Indigeneity and Performance, examines the widespread disappearances of Indigenous women throughout North and Central America and performances and plays that use abject aesthetics and affects of/in violence to respond to the lack of  accountability of these deaths. Her work folds together Indigenous and Third World Feminisms, decolonial thought, aesthetic theory, and performance theories around liveness and disappearance. Her work seeks to bring together the resonances between Native Studies and Performance Studies in their shared concern around states of dispossession.

Still from Rebecca Belmore's 2002 Vigil, Video by Paul Wong.

Still from Rebecca Belmore’s 2002 Vigil, Video by Paul Wong.

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