PuSh Blog

Curatorial Statement – Norman Armour on Nanook of the North

January 01, 2014

There are some projects that simply capture your imagination and seize it immediately at first hearing. Nanook of the North with a live score featuring Tanya Tagaq was just that.

Take Robert Flaherty’s problematic (arguably proto-typical) 1922 documentary, twin it with Tanya’s voice and presence, and then add violinist Jesse Zubot, percussionist Jean Martin, all backed by an electro-acoustic contribution from Derek Charke—this not only grabbed hold of me, it stopped me in my tracks. The idea defied my ability to imagine what it might all result in. Sometimes, a notion for the stage can do that; a performance proposition is conjured that one holds ones breath with the thought of it, with the subversive possibilities. The appropriated appropriates the appropriator.

My own first experience with the Nanook of the North (and other works of Flaherty) had been back in 1980 or so. I had studied the work in a film history class up on Burnaby Mountain at Simon Fraser University. The class was taught by Michael Elliot Hurst, an equally subversive geographer and cinema fanatic. I can still remember encountering the film as if I was an archeologist, handling an artifact aware that my appreciation of the object was never far from being tainted by my own particular cultural lens, my personal presumptions of what life in the North might have been like.

However, Flaherty’s pseudo, and highly staged documentary, was not all lies, not all romanticized propaganda of a supposedly primitive and ‘naïve’ existence captured on celluloid and sold as exotic travelogue or ethnological freak show. (Flaherty had lost 30,000 feet of original nitrate stock negative he had shot in the Artic, and so returned to shoot the new film financed by the French fur company Revillon Frères.) There were embedded real persons and real traditions. Nanook lived, but his name, in fact, was Allakariallak. And he hunted at the time of the shooting, but with a gun and no longer with a spear.

What intrigues me about Tanya Tagaq tackling this work is to what degree this newly fashioned context will act as critique, and to what degree it will serve as a remembrance or honouring. I have always believed that festivals are—when at their best—ingenious “context-makers.” Here, Tanya and her collaborators are uncovering and creating new meanings—a new context—for Nanook of the North.

ar·ti·fact also ar·te·fact  (ärt-fkt)
1. An object produced or shaped by human craft, especially a tool, weapon, or ornament of archaeological or historical interest.
2. Something viewed as a product of human conception or agency rather than an inherent element: “The very act of looking at a naked model was an artifact of male supremacy.” (Philip Weiss).
3. A structure or feature not normally present but visible as a result of an external agent or action, such as one seen in a microscopic specimen after fixation, or in an image produced by radiology or electrocardiography.
4. An inaccurate observation, effect, or result, especially one resulting from the technology used in scientific investigation or from experimental error: The apparent pattern in the data was an artifact of the collection method.

The film is an artifact. There are truths in it, just not all the ones Flaherty hoped to construct. While wishful, at times downright racist, the film does live on as a document of another time and place. And if not of a “people,” it is a record of certain persons, not the least being Flaherty himself. (The two Inuit women in the film were, in fact, his common law wives.) Re-considering the film can reveal as much about its times as it does about the true nature of Inuit life at that time.

Indeed, there is a notion of “artifact” that runs through a number of works in the 2014 PuSh Festival, from Nanook of the North, The Pixelated Revolution, Gob Squad’s Kitchen, The Quite Volume, An Evening with William Shatner Asterisk, Seeds, Night, right through to Have I No Mouth. All of these wildly different performances wrestle (even literally) with questions of observation, of authenticity and authorship, of remembrance and of historical, cultural, familial or personal remnants and residue.

The PuSh Festival has steadily upped its commitment to presenting contemporary Aboriginal artists and work that addresses Aboriginal perspectives, issues and history. Our 2014 Festival is no different. Along with Nanook of the North, we have Huff at Cub PuSh and Night at The Roundhouse. For Nanook of the North we chose the refurbished York Theatre. Our two-night presentation in the final week of the Festival will be for many people in attendance the first time they have stepped into the venue; for others it will be a return of sorts to a building they remember from earlier times, under different circumstances and perhaps with different expectations.

The birth of a ‘new’ live performing arts venue—in this case one that’s been brought back to life, or re-birthed as it were—is something to behold. We have recently lost so many theatres and film screening rooms in Vancouver that to now have the York back as a place for contemporary music, theatre and film is something to celebrate. The Fox Cabaret at Main and 8th will be another; we have on January 20th a performance of Tim Etchells’ Sight is the Sense that Dying People Tend to Loose First.

I recently attended a performance at the York of Jack & the Beanstalk: An East Van Panto (as an invited cameo performer) and was struck by the beautiful sense of warm excitement in the air. The venue is a brilliant success story brought about by many individuals—Tom Durrie, Heather Redfern, Jim Green, Bruno Wall, Gregory Henriquez, to name a few.

On the afternoon of Saturday, February 1st, PuSh and Tides Canada will host a panel discussion at the York Theatre on the visual representation of Inuit life and culture. Admission to the panel discussion is free. Join us before, or after taking in the film/concert. Also consider the free 5:30pm screening of Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner on January 30 at the Djavad Mowafaghian Cinema, SFU’s Goldcorp Centre for the Arts.

Norman Armour, Artistic & Executive Director
PuSh International Performing Arts Festival

Nanook of the North

January 31–February 1
York Theatre
639 Commercial Drive