Brian Jungen and Duane Linklater met for the first time in Banff in 2009. This year, their film Modest Livelihood (2012) premiered at the centre’s Walter Phillips Gallery on the opening night of The Retreat, one of the far-flung programs of dOCUMENTA (13). When the two artists first began to work on it they had no idea that it would become part of the most important and best attended of big international events in the contemporary art world.
Under the artistic direction of Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, dOCUMENTA (13) has broken precedent to reach beyond its main site in Kassel, Germany, with an official program of parallel projects taking place in Kabul and Alexandria/Cairo, as well as in Banff. It does so, as the dOCUMENTA (13) Guidebook says, in order “to embody the conditions in which artists and thinkers find themselves acting in the present”: they are “on stage” in Kassel, “under siege” in Kabul, “in a state of hope” in Alexandria/Cairo and “on retreat” in Banff—although each condition can simultaneously encompass one or more of the others.
In this case, you see, to retreat does not mean, the Guidebook notes, to “abandon active life with others, but to reflect on matters in the company of others.” Thus, a faculty of six important international artists and thinkers, who led seminars and gave public lectures, along with 30 participants, some of whom were artists showing in dOCUMENTA (13), met at The Retreat, which closed August 15, to consider a position framed in 1973 by Roland Barthes in his book The Pleasures of the Text: “There is only one way left to escape the alienation of present day society: to retreat ahead of it.” How to do this was much and variously discussed. In the final lecture on August 10, the well-known French artist Pierre Huyghe spoke about how in his own work he attempts to evade the protocols of making exhibitions, showing in museums and dealing with audiences—even while doing so.
Banff, with its stunning natural beauty and conference facilities, makes the perfect location for a retreat, but you still might ask, why Documenta and Banff? For one thing, Kitty Scott, the director of visual arts at the centre, is an “agent” of dOCUMENTA (13) and as such is an adviser to the artistic director. For another, Christov-Bakargiev visited the centre last summer during the 2011 Banff Research in Culture (BRiC) workshop, a research residency program for scholars co-sponsored by the Banff Centre and the Faculty of Arts at the University of Alberta. Scott and Imre Sezman, the Canada Research Chair in Cultural Studies at the U of A, were co-organizers of the BRiC workshop, called On the Commons; or, Believing-Feeling-Acting Together, which became the prototype for The Retreat, which in turn they co-organized with Christov-Bakargiev.
“From my perspective,” says Scott, “it is amazing that Documenta is here in Canada.”
It was Christov-Bakargiev who asked Brian Jungen to be dOCUMENTA (13)’s Canadian host and to show at the Walter Phillips Gallery during The Retreat. His participation became the silent, 50-minute collaborative film with Linklater, which documents the two aboriginal artists hunting moose in the Peace River Country of British Columbia. It was already in the works and the centre had committed to producing it. “It felt right,” says Scott. “It was intuitive. It played into the notion of retreat, leaving the urban environment for nature.” Presented in the film—which Scott describes as “ancient and contemporary”—along with the idea of retreat into nature there is also a different style of pedagogy that is grounded in the specificity of these artists’ cultures and experience of the spatial history of the land.Christov-Bakargiev was to have given the opening talk of The Retreat and to have attended as a faculty member, but was kept away for personal reasons. She spoke instead, engagingly, via a videotape made in her office in Kassel. The purpose of Banff was “to retreat from the one-million-visitor exhibition in Kassel, to find a space where we are not in a society of communication, because, as we all know, the problem today is not the society of the spectacle, it is the society of communication that is communicating communication itself, and the powers are lying in the media transmission through post–Web 2.0 activities, just as much as there are possibilities through those media, too.” And she remained a presence who was invoked every time someone spoke about dOCUMENTA (13), in deference perhaps to the force of her poetic, intuitive vision for the exhibition, which has been critically well received. It was clearly her show; the only person who spoke for her was Chus Martínez, her second-in-command or “head of department,” who attended The Retreat.
When Jungen and Linklater met at the Banff Centre in 2009, Jungen was working on the commission of three white, stainless-steel sculptures, The ghosts on top of my head (2010–11), for the plaza in front of the new Kinnear Centre (their open, gridded forms are based on the antlers of caribou, elk and moose, and on Harry Bertoia furniture), and Linklater was attending a master class led by Ken Lum. The two men fell into the habit of talking, having coffee together and, as Jungen says, “joking around.” Although Jungen is DaneZaa from northern B.C., and Linklater is Omaskêko Cree from Moose Factory, Ontario, they found they had a lot in common through their families and indigenous backgrounds. Sometime later, Jungen drove to North Bay, where Linklater and his family live, to go on a moose hunt. “We didn’t get anything,” Jungen says, but the seed for the film was planted in that trip.
To make the film, Linklater travelled from Ontario to Jungen’s treaty land in northern B.C. where they were joined by cinematographer Jesse Cain, an American filmmaker who often shoots projects for artists. Jungen and Linklater were both the co-directors and protagonists of the film, which was shot in colour over two five-day periods. The scene opens on a spectacular autumnal landscape vista looking across a vast aspen parkland towards the mountains. Jungen’s uncle, Jack Askoty, who is an elder, takes them to his camp in the bush, guides them and teaches them the techniques of tracking and hunting moose. Again they get nothing. In the second section of the film, it is early winter, with snow on the ground, and the artist/hunters are on their own. One morning in the near darkness of early dawn, they kill a moose and in the rising morning light, proceed to skin, gut and butcher it. Slowly the moose disappears into nothing more than the sack of entrails and a patch of bloody snow. Every other part of the animal will be put to use to sustain life or provide utility.
In the film’s final scene, two ravens soar in the sky, circling the kill site, ready to descend and carry off what remains. They point to what comes next, to the future and to the recurrence of life cycles.
Modest Livelihood is a work with several layers. It is a lot about watching and waiting. The artists were insistent that it be shot on film, both for its materiality and its historical references. “Film is an object,” says Jungen, who adds that the instant replay of video makes him feel self-conscious. Linklater points to the self-reflexivity of their film: filmmaking is like hunting. “You don’t really know what you’re getting,” notes Jungen. During the past two years they talked a lot about movies, like Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966), Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror(1975), the films of Zacharias Kunuk, and NFB documentaries like Cree Hunters of Mistassini (1974).
“We mainly talked about the National Film Board educational documentary films that we saw in the ’70s in school or on the Knowledge Network in B.C. or on TVO in Ontario, and how that influenced our sense of identity back then,” says Jungen. “For me anyways, when I saw native stuff on TV, I kind of measured myself up against that. So there are all sorts of problems, the authority those films took on.” Linklater adds, “Also in the NFB docs, there were still traces of ethnography and traces of making films about ways of life that might not exist.”
Modest Livelihood focuses on everyday life as it continues on DaneZaa treaty lands. As we sit talking in the Banff Centre’s Butterfly Garden(1999), a work designed by the Mi’kmaq artist Mike MacDonald, Linklater points out that he is wearing the same baseball cap and sunglasses that he wears in the film. And there is an important legal point being made, somewhat ironically, in the title, which refers to a Supreme Court ruling upholding the treaty rights of a Mi’kmaq First Nations fisherman, Donald Marshall, to fish where and when he wished in order to make a modest livelihood. The ruling applies to other Canadian aboriginal rights as well. There is also the consideration, to paraphrase a paper by the Social Research for Sustainable Fisheries, that “First Nations’ treaty entitlements are rooted in the Common Law and established through social acknowledgement of an individual or group’s continuous occupation and use of their rights to the land.” It is then important for aboriginal communities to document their use of the land to protect their rights, Jungen says.
By documenting a hunting trip, on treaty land marked by gas flares, seismic lines that cut straight through the forests, wellheads and test flows, Modest Livelihood is a gesture of activism that goes farther than simply documenting traditional ways carried forward into the 21st century, in order to protect them. Even the film’s silence is protective of the knowledge and techniques being passed on by Uncle Jack, Jungen says. Where the silence of native characters in film was once a sign of their powerlessness, silence is employed here as an agent of self-determination and the continuation of life on the land expressed so beautifully in the intense visual focus of this film.