Terrance Houle and the Violence of Complicity

By Alison Cooley

Terrance Houle, Friend or Foe #7 (Toronto) 7a*11d 2014 PHOTO Henry Chan

Terrance Houle beckons his audience closer, drawing a square around himself. I’ll admit to having let my curiosity get the better of me ahead of time—I know he’s enlisted some others to assist in his performance, and he tells me I’ll want to make sure I’m at the front. I’d interviewed Houle about another performance of his, National Indian Leg Wrestling League of North America (NILWLNA) just a few weeks before, and perhaps I’m expecting “sports in the gallery” as I take my seat at the front. I also know this is his last performance before an indefinite hiatus, and that what I am about to see is momentous for that reason alone.

Houle begins by ceremoniously laying out a set of objects: a tube of red paint, a tube of black, an xacto knife, a brown liquor bag with a bottle inside, a few pieces of chalk inside a metal bowl, an empty glass. He’s wearing a button up shirt and tie, slacks, glasses. His hair is in two braids just past shoulder length. Houle lights a cigarette, faces the audience. He mimes, pointing to himself, draws two fingers underneath his nose, makes a figure with his fingers, places a figure atop a travelling hand, gestures to the sky. At some point he makes a fist. We look up at Houle as he presents each series of gestures to one side of the audience: facing North, South, East, West. Some of us call out our guesses for what each means like an awkward game of charades.

Houle takes a swig from his bottle, sits down on his chair in the centre of the audience. Soon there’s a banging at the closed studio door, and four performers force entry, their faces obscured by balaclavas, dressed in black with academic hoods and capes. Against the screaching of electric guitars, the male balaclavad figure begins to operatically decree the words on his printout of an academic paper, while the others roll up their own stacks of paper into makeshift bludgeons, and begin to beat Houle. The artist collapses from his chair. His assailants drag him to the chalkboard on the wall, push him up against it, face-first, and draw a chalk circle around him. The objects Houle had set up are scattered, the red paint is punctured. It’s been dragged across the floor by scuffling feet.

Terrance Houle, Friend or Foe #7 (Toronto) 7a*11d 2014 PHOTO Henry Chan

When his attackers bring Houle back from the board, they begin to strip him. We all look on as they tear off his shirt, tie, underwear. At this point, red paint smeared on the ground is indistinguishable from the scrapes on Houle’s body. Someone in the audience has caught his glasses in the beat-down, but it isn’t until the naked Houle claws his way towards and audience member that someone intervenes. As his assailants pull Houle by the ankles, removing his socks, an audience member clutches him, throws his body over Houle’s. They try to pull him off, but he clings. Soon another joins him, blockading the figure still wailing his academic jargon. Another stretches out her hands, tries to hold them back. In a flurry of seconds the assailants try to keep these interveners back, the figure atop Houle clasps his body against him and kisses his back softly, one of the attackers seems to whisper something, they scatter their paper-made bludgeons into the audience, throw open a bag at Houle’s side. A loincloth, a beaded collar and chest plate, and a set of hand-held bells clatter to the floor.

Houle’s body is still. Once the hooded figures have departed, the audience members guarding his body move back. Some of the onlookers push his shirt and pants towards him to cover his naked body, but he paws them aside. He lights a cigarette, smokes it. Rearranges his objects. He puts on and adjusts the loincloth. Next is collar, then the chest plate. Houle lights another cigarette as he drags several bags of black soil into the centre of the studio. Before he dumps them out, he reiterates the signs he had made with his hands earlier. A scattered mummer of “I?.. Me. Strong? …I … travel?” hums along with his gestures.

Terrance Houle, Friend or Foe #7 (Toronto) 7a*11d 2014 PHOTO Henry Chan

Houle kneels atop his mound, opens his palms, smears them with red paint (which he imprints over his mouth and on his body), then with black (and does the same.) He takes his set of bells in his hand and shakes them rhythmically. He sings: I’ll ride with you/I’ll pray for you.

The artist washes his entire body with the black soil, before, sitting upright, he takes the xacto knife to his braids. He buries the two strands in the earth. As a final act, he returns to us, and mimes the same gestures out.

I am strong?
I am blood.
I’ll ride with you.
I’ll pray with you.

We recognize these motions newly as a manifestation of something that was always there (not beyond Houle’s experience, but beyond our own). And in the same way, we recognize the violence upon Houle’s body: not as new, but as something we cannot avoid having witnessed firsthand. Essays on art and Indigenous artists (I spy the disparate names “Clement Greenberg” and “Joane Cardinal”) lie strewn on the floor. It’s another knowledge, but one that seems far less immediate than Houle’s body on the mound, the kiss on his back, the bells in his hand, the scratches on his arm. Houle’s body is a site of knowledge, trauma, healing: all together in his lungs and his mouth and his scratched up arms. Houle tells us the next day, in a panel, that he cut off his braids to mark a transition, that he cleansed his body just as his father does after fasting, that he wrote this song for Adrian Stimson, that he spoke in a pre-colonial North American Indigenous sign language at the beginning of his performance. So many things I did not know but that manifest in Houle’s body. Lastly, he tells us that the description written in the program for the performance, iisistsikóówa, translates to “he is tired.” And of course he is. The performance reads as an allegory for being an Indigenous artist in Canada: being categorized, canonized, valorized, commodified on the market and in academic theory, even while being subject to the colonial aggressions of nationally sanctioned racist policy-making and individual everyday violences.

But Houle’s performance also takes me back to my own complicity, as a white person, in these individual everyday violences; to a coming-of-age in Saskatoon amid the Neil Stonechild inquiry, where being too young, too female, too scared, all ranked as reasons I didn’t try to break up fights or stop on the street when something felt amiss; to stumbling into the middle of violences that had not yet happened, were maybe about to; the times I called the police and later regretted it; the times I pleaded with my friends not to call the police. To watching Houle being beaten up, and watching others intervene. My own failure to act, under colonial power that make us all vulnerable, reproduces our differences until we are all too female/too poor/too queer/too triggered/too weak/too scared to intervene.

Houle’s performance continues to resonate with me not just as an embodiment of his experiences, but because it demands action. And rather than position himself as a performer somewhere tangential to the world, Houle brings the violence of the world inside the studio. With it, he brings the doubt, the fear, the complicity, and the smallness that taint every ethical decision we, as witnesses, ever have to make. He urges us to respond, and to know that even if we think we have waited, yielded, tried to withold judgement, that’s a fucked up response.

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