Curated by Ryan Rice
September 10, 2022 - October 29, 2022
Versification: 10 Questions
Ryan Rice: Given there are formal westernized rules and structures around writing prose that you clearly challenge in your work, can you describe or define how the exhibition title Versification represents this compilation of works being presented? Can we understand or read it as a decolonial re:action?
January Rogers: Great question. I liked and chose the title Versificationbecause it so aptly made reference to the promotion and use of verses activated in the poetry circulating in various forms throughout the exhibition. I am using language, inviting language through words and images to speak the meaning of these pieces with open ended outcomes, whereby or through which the viewer is welcome to take and interpret from their personal interactions with each piece. There was a specific time in my life when I consciously chose to pursue poetry or rather allowed poetry to show me a route for my expressive outlets. And I did so by letting go of my visual art practice and turning my attentions and energies to writing. But then the visual work crept back in by way of media making, which is a very visual practice and I started to incorporate the poetry into video and performance. So perhaps the combining of those art forms, like throwing off the oppressive parameters of “traditional literature” could be seen as decolonial reactionary, but honestly, if the work is a decolonial reaction, then that’s a by-product of me, making the work serve my passions.
RR: Your primary creative practice as a writer is magnified through your experimentation and control of media (sound, performance, video) and is layered with references addressing social justice and biting critique of the colonial systems we experience. At what point, as a writer, did you incorporate and fold these tools (media) into your work? How did they amplify your voice?
JR: Well, I’m not sure the intention was to amplify my voice, but the practice itself amplified my joy. Through my work and experience in radio, I learned a few skills with producing sound and I took that little bundle of knowledge and ran with it, having so much fun experimenting and realizing that sound is such an ancient expression and that it is possible to produce narrative with sound alone. So again, my practices were overlapping; writing, sound, radio, performance, music, voice etc.
And yes, I make commentary with my work. I have to. It’s part of my responsibility as a Haudenosaunee Woman Artist. I have to make these markers in time, even if I’m reaching back into my cultural birthrights to bring them forward. Those pieces will represent a contemporary interpretation of our teachings and historical events. I have to represent myself as an artist and I’m getting a bit more bold in my practices to really include my own, personal story.
RR: I admire your versatility and fierceness of your creative spirit and how it isn’t restrained. What motivates you? Inspires you?
JR: Well, you’ve named it. It’s the “creative spirit” -- that spirit has been with me since childhood. And although I didn’t choose to “study” art and have the privileges of learning about those who came before me and the use of a proper art language through formal training, I did eventually come to that knowledge through doing residencies and through working alongside others in collaborations and through my own personal research and practice. So, I didn’t have to unlearn anything to get to find my voice as an artist. It was developed by adding to, not taking from. And I could never use “that language” to bullshit my way into cultivating an audience for my work, because I don’t have that language. I have poetry. I have instincts. I have that spirit that guides the work. I’m inspired by the honesty of lived experiences and I’m motivated by a real sense of responsibility to use the gifts and opportunities which I have been so very blessed (word without a lie) to befall me in my life.
RR: Do you feel a sense of urgency to “do” (as in making art)? If so, does this urgency drive your work?
RR: As a full-time artist (broadly defined), where do you find the energy to manage and hustle not only the literary environment, but also multiple projects that cross-over into visual culture and media.
JR: It becomes a wonderful puzzle and complex dance at times. But again, it was something I’ve done since childhood. I remember, in grade 5, writing plays and getting all my friends to act them out. They were very feminist based plays, putting the female character as lead, as hero to the story. I was raised by a feminist mother in the 70’s and 80’s. In a time when the word “feminist” was connected to the words “Women’s Liberation”, which was a different time and with a different meaning. But I was also supported as a young writer in those communities. So, I’ve always been a self-starter and I believe I’m just hard-wired to be able to manage my career, as well as be the creative I need to be. I know that’s not the case for every artist and I have, since returning home to Six Nations, lent my management skills to some of the community musicians and local events. It’s work that really feeds me. So it’s not a surprise at all that I feel quite comfortable in the role as “producer” in my own projects and in collaboration with others.
RR: In your performance work, your presence is bold, unapologetic and commands attention. At the same time, I’ve had the opportunity to witness your actions as being thoughtfully poised and balanced. How do you craft this animation? Are you conscious of audience and reaction? Is this important?
JR: Audience is not important in the development of my performance work. What’s important is that I remain in the moment, that I evoke the “spirit” of the work within me, feel it in me while in performance because that “spirit” will translate, while in performance. It’s so powerful. There is so much that can be conveyed through performance and it really excites me to discover the language that comes from my body, my movement, and the combination of actions and interactions with objects. The measure of success in performance, for me, is the stinging silence when an audience is deeply engaged because I’m so engaged in my own space, thoughts, and meditation in real time. I believe we can identify elements known to performance art. We can name them and teach them. But I think what I love so much about performance art is the same thing I love about “spoken word” in that we define it by doing it and when we keep doing it (authentically), we expand upon the definition of it. These practices, like the culture itself is a living, growing thing. It needs to morph and challenge both the viewer, but more so, the artist.
RR: What was your experience producing the visual poems in the exhibition addressing residential school legacies and the Mush Hole in particular? How do you relate to this history?
JR: First of all, the images are taken from the documented performance work my brother and collaborator Jackson 2bears and I did at the Mush Hole aka Mohawk Institute aka Six Nations Residential School in 2016. Jackson has more of a direct and known history with the Mush Hole through his paternal grandfather’s story. I have a lesser-known family history with that place, but I do know that my paternal grandparents had involvement in the Anglican churches on Six Nations, which of course took them away from Haudenosaunee cultural traditions and practices. So there was a clear disruption from that generation, if not further back. The poems which live with the images are new(er), written while on a trip to Venice Italy in April 2022, which was a very challenging trip for me in many ways. But it served as a time where much self-reflection was done and I wrote several poems on that trip. Some of which I included on the Mush Hole images. This is where I tell my story. The shame of growing up visibly Native, the loss of my Sister - the only other person in the world who shared my story, the undeniable negative effects that residential school has on my reality today. I survived. I am thriving. I am celebrating 31 years of sobriety this year. Going back into that institute with images of my family, was very transformative. Through that performance work, I was able to change my relationship with that place by being mindful of my presence there as well as the presence of the spirits of those who passed through there. Their energy is palpable. I can feel them listening when I speak to them.
RR: Being from Six Nations, what is your relationship to Pauline Johnson? Do you see any parallels with your own trajectory as a Haudenosaunee writer and performer?
JR: Short answer; Yes. Long answer is I believe she came into her own as a writer and performer out of a need to express herself, out of a love for theatrics, out of a desire to stay free and a natural want to be her own person. I operate from a similar foundation as an artist and also a Haudenosaunee woman. The whole not-having-kids thing can sometimes make you seem like an anomaly in Indian Country. And Pauline didn’t have children (although there are rumours…). And I don’t see that as a sacrifice to my career. I value my freedom very very much and there’s little else I see that this world can offer that is more attractive to me than that. As a performer, what I share with Pauline is the way we’ve both taught ourselves how to do this thing called performance poetry. Other than the theatre performers, Pauline Johnson admired and there wasn’t anyone doing what she did in her time. And it’s been the same with me. When I decided to move my work into a performance poetry practice, it was all self-developed and thank goodness most of it worked. So there’s an innovative nature we share, a strong pro-female and very pro-Native agenda from where our poetry is inspired from and of course the love and need to travel to advance our careers.
RR: An “orator” has a significant role in Haudenosaunee culture, do you feel you are moving forward this tradition with your own practice? How important is it to tell, and be heard? How important is it to listen?
JR: Another great question Ryan. You witnessed the performance art piece I did with radios and if you recall in my talk post-performance, I shared, I believe we are all like radios. That is to say we have the ability to transmit (send signals) and receive. So again, I’m making reference to our energies. As a poet who speaks her words, rather than reads them, although I also sometimes read them too, I believe that how we (Native authors) participate in “literature” is but a stepping stone to bring us back to the original practice of oratory. There are many roles in our current societies which employ “oratory” in their pursuits such as lawyers, comedians, teachers, Longhouse speakers, politicians etc. So the act of “speaking” never really went away. The whole reason I started doing spoken word was so my words could be heard - not me - my words. I wanted to honour them by giving them the best chance possible of being heard. And over time, after my nerves calmed down, because there is a fear of losing the words in mid-speech, I began to present with a natural sense of stage presence and gestures. I started to have fun with it.
RR: Thinking about the tangible objects you create and the materials you incorporate and produce for your performance and media work such as costumes, props, cornhusk dolls, stepping stones, rolled cigarettes etc., all become artistic / creative representations that embody your presence that remain active as traces of your absence. For Versification, and your performance and collaborative work with Jackson 2Bears (Kanien'kehaka multimedia installation/ performance artist and cultural theorist from Six Nations), how does the remnants exhibited embody the essence of your performance?
JR: I would say through performance, we not only create experience and memory but evidence of our presence through the objects left behind. In the case of the Spirit Shadow performance, as part of the Versification exhibit, Jackson 2bears and I literally leave outlines of ourselves there in the gallery. We create negative space in the shape of ourselves, distinguished by the medicines we use in a protection ceremony, believing that the methods and actions we evoke to protect ourselves in performance, is so evident, that even in our absence, we remain....protected.