Find­ing Magic: The Fu­ture/An­cient of Al­li­son Akootchook War­den

Inuit Art Quarterly - - CONTENTS - by Priscilla Naunġaġiaq Hens­ley Holt­house

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.

BE­LOW RIGHT Kisaġvig­miut Tra­di­tional Dancers per­form the taliq (bench dances) in the gallery space

BE­LOW LEFT 3D-printed ob­jects along­side the his­toric ar­ti­facts they were sourced from. The yel­low bear is a replica of an ob­ject in the col­lec­tion of the An­chor­age Mu­seum

LEFT We Are In This Fu­ture Time 2016 Al­tered dig­i­tal photo from the artist’s per­sonal col­lec­tion

BE­LOW Atauchikun tatqiġ­muqta! (Let’s All Go To the Moon To­gether!) Space Suit 2016 Plas­tic, felt, fish­ing line, cot­ton thread and beads 218.4 × 162.6 × 12.7 cm

Al­li­son Akootchook War­den (b. 1972 An­chor­age) — PRE­VI­OUS SPREAD We Are In This Fu­ture Time 2016 Al­tered dig­i­tal photos from An­chor­age Mu­seum col­lec­tions and the artist’s per­sonal col­lec­tion UN­LESS OTH­ER­WISE NOTED IMAGES COUR­TESY THE ARTIST BE­LOW...


LEFT Kalukaq from the Fu­ture (Sent from the Ea­gle Mother) 2016 Ply­wood, polypropy­lene glow rope, u-bolt, leather pelt, glow-in-the-dark paint, glow-in-the-dark vinyl, fake ea­gle feather, fluid acrylic, heavy gloss, calf­skin belt and gel 162.6 × 49.5 ×...

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