cataclysm(s)

“What is the question of Indigenous Futurism? Or is it only a yearning and desirable projection of simply believing that we, Indigenous people, will survive and have a place in whatever future swallows this world?”
— Whess Harman

Artist and curator Whess Harman was invited to respond to the works in Shimmering Horizons. Their response takes the form of a zine, a type of small circulation, self published work combining original and appropriated texts and images. Zines developed in the mid twentieth century as a medium for science fiction fans to create and share ideas and stories. In this zine, Harman considers what the prompt of futurity means to them as an artist and as a member of Carrier Wit’at First Nation.

Perzines are a genre of zines; the "per" meaning "personal". Although most zines could be considered personal in that they represent the opinionated work of one person, this term describes zines that are written about one's own personal experiences, opinions and observations. This genre has become increasingly popular within the zine community and is probably the largest used format for zines today. (wikipedia)
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The name of this zine is cataclysm(s) and was made by Whess Harman (Carrier Wit’at, they/them) on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh people. They have resided there as an uninvited guest for the last ten years. This zine was made in Dec 2020 in response to the exhibition Shimmering Horizons, curated by Laurie White for the Canada Gallery.

The exhibition featured the work of Asinnajaq, Elizabeth Zvonar, Tania Willard, Marina Roy and Meagan Musseau.
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Perhaps this is why, even though I am not Stoney Nakoda, Pikani, Kainai, Siksika, Ktunaxa, Maskwacis or Tsuut’ina, all Nations for whom the 2017 reintroduction of the buffalo to the banff national park would have been especially important, I was overcome at the news footage of those thundering, woolly ancestors touching the land with their hooves for the first time in over 140 years. Even in reviewing that footage now, years later, I’m quicker to cry than I am to remember what I’m trying to tell you about Indigenous futures in this zine.

I can only try to explain this feeling of future through another example that many readers won’t have a frame of reference for: I am not of the plains nations and I cannot imagine the exhale, the relief and perhaps the deep-seated need to compulsion to gather and welcome and feast that they must have felt witnessing their ancestors returning to the land. This small herd embodies not only a present ecological and scienced conservation triumph, but reaches forward and back in both directions to combust in a middle that erupts with hope. The comparison I can offer to try and articulate what this means for future is to explain the sheer wonderment at what I might feel if I were to witness a true return of the salmon to my nation’s own territories.

The facts are, that as it is, every few years I receive news that once again, our people are abstaining from our traditional gathering in hopes of increasing the chances of the survival for the salmon at all, the hope that the absence of our small subsistence-based gathering might make some difference against the canadian and american commercial fisheries that pillage our ancestors. (Yes, I am medium-bitter-to-embroiled-with-rage when someone relishes the taste of wild sockeye from their landlocked tables).

For me, my post-apocalyptic cataclysm is this: our territory, entirely bereft of our salmon. It is a thought that elicits a physical reaction from me that starts in my gut then clenches fists around each of my lungs until my throat pinches for the air I can no longer draw in. And the threat is close and it is deeply personal.

The present is a precipice. The future is a place that we (Carrier Wit’at) can only speculate with how we (Carrier Wit’at) hold and cultivate the present. The past is where our ancestors (Carrier Wit’at) have already taught us (Carrier Wit’at) how to hold ourselves (Carrier Wit’at) and the land (Tentah). These things, and all their splintering branches of possibility, are happening concurrently.

Then for our neighbours, the present is a precipice. The future is a place where they (Wet’suwet’en) can only speculate with how they (Wet’suwet’en) hold and cultivate the present. The past is where their ancestors (Wet’suwet’en) have already taught them (Wet’suwet’en) how to hold themselves (Wet’suwet’en) and the land (Yintah). These things, and all their splintering branches of possibility, are happening concurrently.

Then for our shared neighbours, the present is a precipice. The future is a place where they (Gitsxan) can only speculate with how they (Gitsxan) hold and cultivate the present. The past is where their ancestors (Gitsxan) have already taught them (Gitsxan) how to hold themselves (Gitsxan) and the land. These things, and all their splintering branches of possibility, are happening concurrently.

Then for our neighbour’s-neighbours, the present is a precipice. The future is a place where they (Tahltan) can only speculate with how they (Tahltan) hold and cultivate the present. The past is where their ancestors (Tahltan) have already taught them (Tahltan) how to hold themselves (Tahltan) and the land. These things, and all their splintering branches of possibility, are happening concurrently.

Then neighbour’s-neighbour’s-neighbours, and so forth; the futures branch outward, interconnecting root-systems forming a dense shattering reverb, a heavy pulse across time. Every Indigenous peoples on their land or stolen from them holds their own nexus of worlds for the future. The more we talk about Indigenous futurism, the less general it needs to be, the more connected it needs to be. Our giants all differ, but as long as the memory of those impossible beings persist, we will trust that we survive these precarious worlds and have ancestors in the future.

Which brings me to the works in this show; the legacy of sci-fi media well-established as a thoroughly white, male-dominated and cis-gendered space and Afro and Indigenous futurisms and their intersecting paths with feminist critique have served as critical interrogations of this exclusionary space. But how, and how do the works of this exhibition lean into that conversation? As an artist myself I’ve often been aligned with Indigenous Futurisms by curators and institutions but struggle to claim the categorization myself. Each time, I’ve had to wonder harder about what the ever-loving fuck Indigenous Futurism is as the term has taken a deep dive into academia. What is the question of Indigenous Futurism? Or is it only a yearning and desirable projection of simply believing that we, Indigenous people, will survive and have a place in whatever future swallows this world??
In Tim Hickson and Ellie Gordon’s video essay, Hard Worldbuilding vs Soft Worldbuilding | A Study of Studio Ghibli, they discuss the differences between the two styles and define hard worldbuilding and soft worldbuilding as such:

Hard worldbuilding is about immersion through giving the reader or viewer detailed or logical and even realistic cultures, languages, geography and elsewise with an eye for how they all work together. (ie. JRR Tolkien’s, The Lord of the Rings)

Soft worldbuilding immerses us through consciously using the unknown flexible roles and the readers imaginative involvement to give depth and otherworldliness. (ie. Hayao Miyazaki’s, Spirited Away)

Their essay doesn’t posit one as any better than the other, but I think the sense of euphoric wonderment that is conveyed when describing Miyazaki’s soft world is also emblematic of the possibilities of that style of worldbuilding and perhaps an entry point into the works of this exhibition. There is exhale in this method of building that feels eager to shake off the trappings of more definitive explanations for why the world is the way it is. For many BIPOC communities especially, the present is the hard worldbuilding stage; we know why the world is the way it is and excessively so. For our futurisms, the most important part is survivance; how we get there feels less important than knowing that we do. The soft build of fictive futures is a space for oppressed groups to shake off genocidal, legislated, and corporatized presents and to experience the pleasure of life after The Cataclysm (or punctuated series of cataclysms).

Hard and soft worldbuilding can bleed back and forth between one another; much the way these works included in Shimmering Horizons, blend and bend forward and back between each other. From the reconfigured past blends into the possible but grounded futures of Asinnajaq’s Three Thousand, in the cryptic anthro-cyborged visions of Elizabeth Zvonar’s collages as subjects of an uncategorized populace, to the fragmented and recollected compilations of Marina Roy’s work echoing a future museums efforts to categorize an inaccessible past and then in Tania and Meagan’s work the insistence that the memory of Indigenous making will persist regardless of the shifting conditions of material collection. Together they build a wide landscape that focuses on the essential desire to hold identity but to be flexible enough to adapt for what will come to bear.

When I try to convey to you that immense feeling that comes with witnessing the footage of the reintroduction of the buffalo or when I attempt to explain the terror I feel in the salmon disappearing from my nation’s traditional waters, I know that there aren’t the kind of words in colonial language to adequately do so. Colonial words do not translate well those things which feel ancestral; the ancestral feeling is intuitive, disconcerting and expands outwards in a breath that lands heavy across something that isn’t space or time. If I could show you what I really wanted to show you, I wouldn’t have to speak directly to the feeling. The worldbuilding I would want to use would be soft, visual, and discarded of the empirical qualities of the english language; “The fewer requirements to rationalise soft worldbuilding choices means you can prioritise and be more flexible with that meaning you want to imbue your world with” (Hickson + Gordon). It may still not be enough, but it might convince you to surrender into not needing to understand the mechanics of why I feel a certain way about it.

(so, not like this pictured situation in this 1995 episode of Star Trek Voyager, The Cloud where Robert Beltran’s character Commander Chakotay is showing Captain Janeway how to partake in a modernized vision quest. Which, I feel a certain way about)

Sci-fi is a world where Black and Indigenous people have had to legitimize their places within while many other people of colour have only received invitation through flagrant fetishization. Women, be they racialized or white, have long been shunted aside in virulent, misogynistic derision or sexualized and regulated to posturing in metal bikinis. To employ futurisms, even as the terminology has entered the milieu of academia, is a refusal that is decidedly pop culture but serves as crucial interrogations of the science fiction being served from monolithic media production companies and is especially flexible within the exhibition space where less is often more. Even Asinnajaq’s film, which so heavily draws from the “concreteness” of archival footage invites more questions rather than would often be permitted in the current landscape of overwrought superhero styled futures and does so by an instinctive leaning back towards rooting the future in the past. The future is an atmosphere. The works in this exhibition reach narratively past a world that still struggles to prioritize Indigenous survivance and the histories of feminized labour and experience and do so without excessively feeling that they must legitimate their presence.
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Film Idea:
Sometimes I dream about a moment, where I have arrived with my loved ones, where we witness the departure of the colonizers and their descendants abandon the land, mark it forfeit and take to the stars.

After many generations of rebuilding our relation to the land, our young people will ask, “why did they give up? Why would they leave?”

Perhaps the reply that will have been passed down is simply that they gave up and left because it was in their nature and that it is in our nature to stay. We will forget that some of our own left too.

More generations pass. The once husked out shells of late-capitalist cities have once again become wild. The cityscapes once riveting the surfaces of earth have been subsumed by time. We have found a way; and then, our descendants who took to the stars begin to find their ways home.

“This is your home, I’d know you from a starscape away, maybe more.”
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Dreaming of the future can be to indulge the desire to walk through an aftermath. The empty, decaying buildings of cities overtaken by green. Cracked roads disused from no long needing to constantly depart, arrive, depart. Those who survive will be humbled by their suffering, those who are born into the aftermath granted the naivety of pre-contact worlds. In the aftermath the discontents of the present are past, arms-length and palatable. We walk among the ruins, easily sidestep the evidence of the crimes that brought the world to a crucible. We romanticize our cataclysms. We create an archive for the future, endless possibilities as we refuse to give our end a singular definition. 10,000 possible futures for survival, more. a fervent belief that survival outweighs extinction.