Entering the space of John Wynne’s Anspayaxw,
I feel as though I’m literally crossing a border. I open a
gallery door adjacent to the Museum of Anthropology’s Great
Hall—an exhibit of monumental Northwest Coast material culture—and
move into a space dominated by the intangible. First, there are
sounds: feet crunching tracks through snow, a river flowing under
ice, the rapid breath of a dog who has been running hard. There
is the chime of an electronic clock, the sound of a passing vehicle,
and then, Gitxsanimaax and English-speaking voices, telling stories,
calling out bingo numbers, ringing in laughter, and singing. These
sounds and voices were recorded by Wynne in collaboration with linguist
Tyler Peterson on the Gitxsan Anspayaxw (Kispiox) reserve in northern
Twelve channels of sound are projected through twelve flat-panel
speakers, suspended in a darkened gallery. These are hung facing
inwards to create their own rectangular space. Each speaker is fronted
by a vividly lit image created by Wynne in collaboration with visual
artist Denise Hawrysio. I enter this space, drawn from one panel
to the next by a montage of remixed sound and image.
Some of these photographs depict Gitxsanimaax road signs created
by a few young residents hired by the band office back in the seventies,
one of whom, Gwen Simms, appears in the piece. They chose names
that reflected the clan and family organization of settlements on
the reserve, or local significances of places, to replace road names
assigned by the Department of Indian Affairs. What was once arbitrarily
named ‘Poplar’ or ‘Spruce’ became Lax-see’l
(Frog clan), a road where several of the clan’s families were
living; or Angol (meaning ‘run’), named after
a road where the softball team would run to build stamina. These
road signs represent one of many dynamics of translation in Anspayaxw.
These are not literal, symmetrical translations but transformative
inscriptions and reclamations of language, meanings of place, and
The photographs are also of people from Anspayaxw who, in their
homes or in one case in the linguistics lab at UBC, are shown in
the act of recording language and narratives—some of which
are included in the installation—for Wynne and linguist Peterson.
These images, framing the documentation of Gitxsanimaax, are also
translations. Wynne has transformed them into something new. They
have been mirrored, but asymmetrically, like imperfect Rorschach
ink blots. On one side of the image, the subject of the photograph
is present, animated in speech, focused on the act of recording
surrounded by photographs of family, and children’s toys.
On the other side, the microphones and tape recorder remain, but
the person is gone. Only the trace of his or her body is left as
an imprint in the chair, or the suggestion of a recorded voice left
echoing in the room. The photographs depict the presence and the
absence of a person. The artist’s translation of these images
evokes concern over the shift of endangered Gitxsanimaax to English,
the gradual loss of a language that could one day only exist on
the linguist’s tape.
The images and sounds of Wynne’s Anspayaxw hang
in the border zones between anthropology and art, drawing attention
to the subjective nature of language documentation and photography,
and the multiple layers of translation that are central to the documentation
and interpretation process. It is Wynne’s navigation of this
border space between disciplinary practices that is most unsettling
about the work. The sounds and images, the products of ethnographic
and linguistic research, are edited and remixed to resist easy interpretation.
Reality, Wynne suggests, is never symmetrical. This is a quality
that the doubled images are intended to reflect. The imperfect reflections
counter the viewer’s desire for symmetry; they disrupt the
sense that what is seen and heard can be simply understood. Relations
of power are rarely symmetrical either, but there are spaces of
negotiation in between.
Thelma Blackstock is recorded speaking the words of a funeral
song named Xsin Naahlxw (Breath). The words are spoken
rather than sung for the linguist, whose goal is to transcribe the
Gitxsanimaax words. Wynne uses this recording in the installation
with the permission of the representative of the House of Geel,
Catherine Blackstock-Campbell. He presents it as spoken word to
resist ethnologizing and circulating this sacred, hereditary, song.
Instead of a documentation of a performance, it is a record of the
moment of encounter between researcher and speaker. It reveals the
process of translating intangible cultural property into orthographic
transcription, which, without permission from the owner, is an act
Later, Fern Weget sings her own Gitxsanimaax translation of Bob
Miller’s 1933 country song, White Azaleas. Unlike
Blackstock’s funeral song, with its strict protocols of ownership,
Weget sings the song because “it doesn’t belong to nobody.”
Weget makes this popular song her own, yet at the end of her performance
Wynne reinterprets the recording, drawing the tones of her voice
into expansive harmonics, remixing the piece anew. Both of these
songs, like the images, are asymmetrical reflections. The artist’s/linguist’s
recordings, Wynne demonstrates, are not unmediated actualities,
but the creation of new forms. Weget’s White Azaleas,
a Gitxsan version of a public-domain country-and-western song, is
translated into the social and cultural life of Anspayaxw.
The two songs illuminate the tension between epistemologies and
legal regimes of ownership. Along with the stories told by residents
of Anspayaxw—narratives of survival, suffering, and humour
in the face of colonial oppression and discrimination—they
expose negotiations of relations of power: the subjective acts of
recording language and culture, creating works of art, and the dynamic
processes of cultural change, adaptation, and appropriation.
Kate Hennessy is a Doctoral Candidate in Anthropology and Trudeau
Scholar at the University of British Columbia. Her research explores
the transformative role of new media in museum and academic practice.
Her multimedia works investigate documentary methodologies and collaborative
practices to address indigenous and settler histories of place.
Detail from Anspayaxw by John Wynne. Photo by Ken Mayer