Friday night was not your typical art opening at ASU Art Museum's Ceramics Research Center - no gallery goers milling about, gawking at art objects carefully mounted on vitrine-capped pedestals spaced strategically throughout a pristine gallery space.
No, this was literally an opening celebrating a large square one cut into the painted concrete floor of the CRC to expose the earth underlying its slick, man-made surface. Dangling over the rubble-filled void left behind was a microphone relaying ambient sound to the chunk of concrete that had been cut out and removed, like a necrotic wart, from the floor. The slab, a microphone embedded in a corner that crumbled during removal to pick up audio vibrations, together with small chunks of concrete lost in excavating (referred to as "collateral damage"), were the only things displayed on pedestals that particular night.
All was the handiwork of Postcommodity, an interdisciplinary indigenous artists' collective, including locals Kade Twist and Steven Yazzie. Twist (Cherokee), and Yazzie (Laguna/Navajo) collaborated with filmmaker/experimental sound artist Nathan Young (Delaware/Kiowa/Pawnee) and musical composer/sound artist Raven Chacon (Navajo) to produce Do You Remember When? It's the first piece in a series of site-specific art installations that are part of ASUAM's "Native Confluence: Sustaining Cultures." The project, curated by Peter Held of the CRC, was created to coincide with ASU's Global Institute of Sustainability's "Conference for Sustainability," a graduate school conference being held October 8-10 that's billed as one aimed at plumbing the depths of social-ecological transformations and sustainability.
Sustainability appears to be the latest and most beloved buzz word of ASU President Michael Crow. According to the relatively new ASU institute's own website, "[t]he emergence of 'sustainability science' builds toward an understanding of the human-environment condition with the dual objectives of meeting the needs of society while sustaining the life support systems of the planet." (this is a quote from A Framework for Vulnerability Analysis in Sustainability Science Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, July 8, 2003, Vol.100:3). A much pithier summation comes from Barbara Lither of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): "If you get right down to it, sustainability is really the study of the interconnectedness of all things."
When asked what the word means, artist Kade Twist says, "Sustainability is what Western people talk about when they talk about trying to make the future better, I think. Sustainability has become an academic gold rush; it's been turned into a commodity."
"The university is having this discourse without including any indigenous people in it," he says. "And here we are, in the most unsustainable environment in North America, surrounded by tribes who are living in a much more sustainable way."
According to Twist, Postcommodity's installation is directed at symbolically cutting a conceptual hole in the university as an institution that, for too long, has embraced a rigid, often destructive Western scientific world view, to free the indigenous cultural and world view lying hidden beneath it. The pedestal-mounted slab on exhibit is a trophy -- a post-industrial scalp, if you will -- evidencing Native Americans wresting back what they have lived in harmony with for centuries. The group also claims that its artwork is akin to an intervention to force the university to acknowledge the non-Western world view of indigenous people, acknowledged masters of sustainability for millennia. "In the larger context, we're exposing the earth that was once indigenous Hohokam land -- this is Indian country."
In further acknowledgment of that fact, the group collaborated with traditional indigenous potter Kevin Stevens and his wife, well-known bead artist Yolanda Stevens, both of whom are Piipaash (pronounced pee-posh) and members of the Gila River community, to choose an appropriate song cycle blessing and dance to be performed at the opening. They also invited Simon J. Ortiz, (a member of the Eagle or Dyaamih Clan from New Mexico's Acoma Pueblo), to read a poem he specifically wrote for the installation piece. Considered the unofficial poet laureate of Native Americans, Ortiz is generally recognized by critics and scholars to be one of the most notable writers of the "Native American Renaissance" of the 1960s and 70s.
Twist made it very clear that his group's project at ASU Art Museum was a collaboration between the group and the art museum - and definitely not the university. He notes that it took over two months of bureaucratic wrangling just to get permission to cut into CRC's floor.
Postcommodity's 4x4-foot hole and trophy slab are more than just a metaphorical strike against "the paving of paradise to put up a parking lot," in the immortal words of folk songstress Joni Mitchell (way back in the 1960s, she was already musically mourning the inexorably destructive creep of mindless industrialization and development). Do You Remember When? is actually a very mindful liberating of Mother Earth, from which we all come and to which we all return, without exception, in a seamless cycle, according to native beliefs. Seems as though the world has forgotten these basics in its quest for "progress," whatever that may mean. Postcommodity's installation is a concrete reminder that we must get back to the place from which we started before Mother takes matters into her own, very formidable hands
A video of the actual floor-cutting ritual done for the installation can be found on Postcommodity's website. A review of Postcommodity's "Dead River" installation created for a four-hour exhibition held as a fundraiser for ASUAM in April can be seen at this New Times link. And check out our slideshow of this event.