Inuit Art Quarterly
Finding Magic: The Future/Ancient of Allison Akootchook Warden
Somewhere between digitally manipulated caches of archival photographs, Twitter poetry and neonhued, 3D-printed historical objects, this Iñupiaq artist, based in Anchorage, Alaska, has created a world that begins where the future ends.
Spanning the space between language, performance and objects, this Alaskan artist has created a rich and layered artistic world, replete with music, poetry and moving images. The result is an unfailingly welcoming practice that invites audiences to “become Iñupiaq”, while skilfully honouring her community.
There are many routes into Allison Akootchook Warden’s creative universe. She’s a performance artist who tells stories and raps as a killer whale, a writer who just published a book of Twitter poems and a visual artist who makes drawings, installations and video works. Most recently, visitors to the Anchorage Museum in Alaska were able to immerse themselves in the entirety of her artistic ecosystem by visiting her extended performance installation U ni pk aaġu si ksuġuvik( the place of the future/ ancient) throughout the fall of 2016. Over the course of the two-month exhibit, Warden was on-site for hundreds of hours, performing, presiding over the space and welcoming people into a special place/time of her making. U ni pk aaġu si ksuġuvik transformed the top floor of the museum into an environment based on the shape and function of an old-school Iñupiaq qargi (community house). Warden describes the concept by raising her arms in a circle over her head and wiggling her fingers to indicate the space in between them. That’s where the magic happens. “If time is a circle and then you break [it] apart, there’s the hyper-hyper future and the super-super ancient,” she explains. “My hypothesis is that there’s a synaptic gap. It’s like this cyclical thing [and] the whole show existed, in theory, in that gap.”1 Warden’s installation was a prepared, multidimensional environment, containing objects old and new, interactive, communityoriented elements and performances. Lines between practices were shrugged away in an interdisciplinary tide of being and doing. Based in Anchorage, Warden is Iñupiaq, a tribal member of the Native Village of Kaktovik with family roots in Utqiaġvik (Barrow), Alaska. Born in Fairbanks, she grew up in several Alaska communities and in the “Lower 48”2 when her mother was attending divinity
school. Her creative evolution began unfurling slowly over her first few decades—a childhood role in a play, theatre as a teenager, a certificate in audio engineering—and has grown in intensity over the last ten years. In 2008, a watershed year for Warden, she created the solo performance Ode to the Polar Bear at the Out North theatre and collaborated on Wait, Let Me Finish Putting on My Armor at MTS Gallery (both in Anchorage). Ode to the Polar Bear developed into Calling All Polar Bears (2011), which premiered at Pangea World Theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and was later performed in Berlin and London and multiple communities in Alaska. While she may be best known for her solo performance work and for her appearances as rapper AKU-MATU, Warden is also an active collaborator. AKU-MATU typically appears alone onstage, but the beats are made by creative partner DJ WD40, and since 2013 she’s been a member of the band Yada Di, with Elena Lukina and Yngvil Vatn Guttu. Through involvement with projects such as Indigenize IT! and Virtual Subsistence, Warden has helped to create opportunities for other performers and artists. Further, by teaching students in Alaska and Greenland, she has shared creative tools and her artistic spark with Indigenous youth. The introductory text presented U ni pk aaġu si ksuġuvik as“a place to decolonize your spirit.” At the same time, it was a broad and inclusive space of Indigenization. The reimagined qargi transformed the top floor of the museum with its Iñupiaq name and descriptive texts, traditional dance practices, Native Halloween and Talk Show Tuesdays (and Thursdays Too). Altogether, it built on Warden’s past performance and installation works and community engagement and greatly expanded them, along with the horizons of museum-goers and the museum itself. Julie Decker, Director and CEO of the Anchorage Museum, saw the exhibition as a win-win-win for the artist, museum and visitors:
I think the museum should allow for risk and experimentation and should continually examine what role it can play in the community and how museum spaces can be defined. Allison proposed the performance/exhibition as part of our Polar Lab program and we knew that whatever form it ultimately took, it would be an important shift of perceptions, experiences and expectations—for us as a museum and for visitors, and would provide an opportunity for Allison to expand her definition of “performance” and to think visually.3
If pressed, Warden expresses favoritism for installations, out of all the forms she works in. “I love them because you create an immersive environment and people can get engaged on their own terms so it’s not like you have to sit in a theatre and the show starts at 7. It’s more like, ‘I’m a part of a show right now,’ or ‘I could hang out here all day.’” To enter the space, visitors passed through a hallway lined with rotary dial telephones fitted with headphones and playing recordings in Iñupiaq. We Knew Our Words Would Travel Beyond Bones (2016) featured Warden’s own voice reading from Puiguitkaat, a transcript from the 1978 North Slope Elders’ Conference. Another, Give It Up To God, Let the Spirit Work through You (2016) is a recording of Warden reading from Iñupiat New Testament: North Alaskan Eskimo and Today’s English Version (1st edition 1966). The accompanying label commented on the connection between her faith and her work.
I was raised in the Presbyterian Church, as my mother is now a retired Presbyterian minister. I was taught at a young age about how to pray and the importance of prayer. My faith is how I am able to do the work that I do. It is the only way that I am able to do the work I do. My communities that I serve know me; they know that I know how to pray. I am able to look at the challenging subject of the role of the aŋatkuq [shaman] in Iñupiaq culture because I have a strong foundation in Jesus. I am not attempting to convert anyone through my work. I am reaffirming to my community where I stand, the way I was raised. I strongly believe that our Iñupiaq traditional spiritual beliefs and ceremonies can be beautifully expressed and supported from a strong foundation in Jesus and God. It would take a book of writing for me to really explain my thoughts in this area. If you are offended by my words, or if you disagree, please find a way to forgive me. Quyanaq. [Thank you.]
Warden’s installation was a prepared, multidimensional environment, containing objects old and new, interactive, communityoriented elements and performances. Lines between practices were shrugged away in an interdisciplinary tide of being and doing. —
A passageway into the main space of the exhibit evoked the sod houses traditionally used by the Iñupiat, which feature a tunnel people would pass through to get to the living space. Here, as people passed by the telephones, they walked beneath a ceiling lowered by hanging sheets of copper. The main area, also with a gleaming dropped ceiling, was lined down one side with a wide bench people could sit or lay on, outfitted with blankets and cushions. There was even an organized naptime on a Friday afternoon. Live programming, however, grounded the installation with the warmth of human activity. Warden invited other Alaska Native people into the space to be featured in some way or lead workshops. Gretchen Sagan, another Iñupiaq artist, hosted several beadwork sessions while Allison Kelliher conducted a workshop on traditional healing. Warden co-founded a dance group, Kisaġvigmiut Traditional Dancers, that also held practices in the space. A villagestyle Halloween party included dancing and a costume contest as well as a performance by Warden’s rapping alter ego AKU-MATU. Also part of the programming was AKU’s Tatoo, a consultation by the artist with Holly Mititquq Nordlum and Maya Sialuk Jacobsen, two Inuit women who are revitalizing traditional skin marking practices. Social media was a very natural and integrated part of Unipkaaġusiksuġuvik. Held on a stage at one end of the installation and downstairs at the museum café, Talk Show Tuesdays (and Thursdays Too) was broadcast on Facebook Live, allowing the audience to participate remotely via comments. Guests included artist Ricky Tagaban, filmmaker Anna Hoover and Anchorage Museum curator Aaron Leggett. Yaari Walker, Siberian Yupik from St. Lawrence Island, was a guest with whom Warden shared a powerful conversation about spirituality, ancestors and healing. More than just a way to promote her work, Warden has utilized social media platforms to extend the reach of her projects or, in the case of her Twitter poems, as the site of the work’s creation. Projected above the stage were photos largely pulled from the museum archives and altered by Warden, part of the yearlong period of preparation the artist spent working with and in the museum. “The [archivists] were super generous and kind. I was just all up in their space for like three weeks,” explains Warden. “Eventually, I just got a desk in the back. I was interested in [these] old archival photos and modifying them.” To do so, Warden added colour to some and
digitally chopped and reassembled others. The result was an assemblage of imagery that collapsed space and time. “I liked the idea of making [these] ancient [images] more futuristic.” Building on this meeting of the ancient and futuristic, Warden worked with a museum technician to create bright, even neon, 3D-printed replicas of several special objects—including one from the museum collection—displayed alongside the original items. She’d spotted a small, ivory talisman object of a polar bear wearing a crown back in 2013, while perusing the Anchorage Museum collections as a participant in a Smithsonian artist program. That one was printed in bright yellow. Three personal items made by family members: a baleen yo-yo handle, a wooden ikuun (skin scraping tool) and another small, ivory polar bear were created to round out the set. Warden describes this second little polar bear as the “most special object that I personally own,” acquired when she was thirteen years old from her great uncle, Stephen Patkotak at Kivġiq (Messenger Feast). While it’s evident that Warden’s incorporation and remaking of museum objects creates visually captivating pieces, on another level it is demonstrably expressive of a relationship between artist and institution wherein each are granted trust and access. Atauchikun tatqiġmuqta! (Let’s All Go To the Moon Together!) Space Suit (2016) is another such piece. Constructed of plastic material, hot pink felt, clear and neon green zip ties, a hula skirt, fishing line, cotton thread and some glow-in-the-dark tubes and beads, the garment is a recreation of an Iñupiaq whaling suit held by the Sheldon Jackson Museum in Sitka, Alaska. Only two such ugruk hide (bearded seal) suits exist. “Part of my reason for making this suit out of modern materials was that nobody had made one for 150 years,” explained the artist.4 “[Ugruk hide is] this really stinky material that’s super hard to work with. It was traditionally [worn to] butcher a whale, partially submerged in the water. It [was] made to fit exactly to your body shape.” Warden’s choice of materials also speak to the way she sees the suit. “To me, it looks like a space suit.” In the text accompanying the work for Unipkaaġusiksuġuvik, Warden elaborates, “We have stories of aŋatkut travelling to the moon. I imagine that they would be wearing this suit, because it looks similar to an astronaut’s suit.” For its presentation at the Anchorage Museum, she created a rap song to go with the suit, titled We Made It! Becoming a Five Dimensional Soul. Lyrics include:
Now is the time we are all waking up Akkupak Itiġinaqsigatigut Waking up to the call of the Earth Itiqta quqquulataanun nunapta You and I are working together Il.ivilu uvaŋalu savaktuguq atauchikun And together we transition into a new age. Tavraasii atauchikun iñulasisa nutauruami inuuiġmi.
Iñupiaq, the language of the Iñupiat, is part of the matrix of Warden’s work. Not a fluent speaker, it is through intention and effort that she uses it to the extent that she does, which is not insignificant. Throughout Unipkaaġusiksuġuvik, Iñupiaq was seen and heard with the artist leading language lessons for school children through the museum’s educational programming. “Our language is in this precarious state right now. Why not encourage everybody, no matter who they are [or] whatever race they are, to learn our language? Is there anything wrong with that? As long as [we’re] not taxing the elders who know the language and the grammar, then I’m like, ‘everybody should learn Iñupiaq. Let’s make everybody Iñupiaq.’ Which is a funny thing to say. Even Iñupiat are like, ‘How do you do that? That’s not even possible.’ But I like the inclusivity in that. How can we make everybody Iñupiaq?” This invitation—to make everyone Iñupiaq—speaks to Warden’s engagement with ever-broader audiences as well as the ripple effects of this open-ended and welcoming approach. In an email Decker shared, she comments on how Warden’s commitment has inspired their own efforts at the museum.
In expressing herself, her visions and perceptions of the various dimensions of life and existence, Warden is constantly mindful of the communities she is part of: her tribe, the Iñupiat, artists, online and humanity. —
I was drawn to the individual investment on the part of Allison—the commitment, the personal energy that would be expended, the endurance aspect of it, the personal risk [and] the many dimensions to it. It was so iterative that it was at times challenging to the planning that can be required for building audiences and participants. But that’s a worthwhile exercise, too. [She] is fearless as a performer—she is all in. She is not just interested in being a stage performer; she sees the ensuing dialogue and conversations as part of her work, too. She is a rapid-fire idea creator [and is] sincere about her activism. Her work is current. Multifaceted and multidisciplinary, there are numerous individual components of Unipkaaġusiksuġuvik not touched on here: a glow-inthe-dark box drum, a portal between dimensions masquerading as a map of the universe, ceremonial dance staffs, a media screen playing Kivġiq videos and a painting on the stage’s surface. Details everywhere. These intersections of past and present technologies, and the people who create, interact with and modify them, are in some ways, not new at all. As Warden told me, “In Kaktovik, when copiers first came out, [one of] my elders bought a copier [that] he used in his own way to make his life easier. He enlarged everything so he could read it. [Likewise,] my great uncle couldn’t hear, so he rigged up a flashing light so [that] every time the phone would ring, a light would flash. Anytime a new technology came in [my elders] ‘made it Iñupiaq.’ Now I have the technology of museums and hip-hop and the technology [to create] physical things. How do I make those Iñupiaq and make it relevant to our own people? How do I share who we are with people and make it accessible, and how much of it is actually transferrable?” In expressing herself, her visions and perceptions of the various dimensions of life and existence, Warden is constantly mindful of the communities she is part of: her tribe, the Iñupiat, artists, online and humanity. “I’m always beholden to my culture,” she says. “I am a reflection of my ancestors’ vision and spirit and their work. I’m a reflection of my family. So, everything that I do, I keep those things in mind. [It’s] why I have [photographs of] my ancestors on my laptop.” In a way, like the elder in Kaktovik did with his photocopier, Warden uses the materials and technologies available to help herself and others to see things differently. Like the elder who wired his telephone to a lightbulb so he knew it was ringing, Warden is connecting things and sending up bright signals.