Laura Ortman performing at Michelle Latimer’s screening of NUUCA (2017). Photo by Elise Gallant and courtesy of Arsenal Contemporary.

Native Artists are Fighting and Creating in the Shadow of #NODAPL

Meg Whiteford

Michelle Latimer and Laura Ortman collaborated on a hybrid screening-performance that explored the contested, abused, but fully alive landscape of Standing Rock.

Laura Ortman performing at Michelle Latimer’s screening of NUUCA (2017). Photo by Elise Gallant and courtesy of Arsenal Contemporary.

A shadow crept across a projection of the North Dakotan horizon, a landscape of moving water and oil drills. The silhouette belonged to musician Laura Ortman, who performed a live score for Michelle Latimer’s short film NUUCA last night at Arsenal Contemporary in New York City. Ortman bowed the strings of her violin, foot deftly touching the reverberation pedals, as her shadow partially obscured the landscape behind her. Her profile evoked the indigenous body, which is nearly vanished, but remains embedded on the land.

The hybrid screening and performance by these two artists of native ancestry—Ortman is White Mountain Apache and Latimer is Algonquin/Métis—was a closing ceremony of sorts for Canadian artist Wanda Koop’s solo exhibition, “Standing Withstanding,” which is on view through July 1. In her work, Koop ruminates on the flicker: the light of an aperture, the flames of alchemical energy, the fires that feed oil’s circulation, and the bonfires of indigenous communities.

Laura Ortman performing at Michelle Latimer’s screening of NUUCA (2017). Photo by Elise Gallant and courtesy of Arsenal Contemporary.

Latimer’s film is a complement to Koop’s work, analogizing the oil industry’s recent violations against the Sioux Nations, the Arikara, the Mandan, and the Northern Cheyenne around the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota with the rise in sexual and physical assaults against the female native population there. Over portentous images of the Dakota Access Pipeline, Ortman’s ominous violin drowned out the film’s narration, delivered by an indigenous woman who suffered assault. Her musical arrangements—turbulent and fractal, working with and against the current of the film—were paralleled by the footage monolithic drills pumping and pummeling into the Bakken oilfields of North Dakota.

The DAPL, a $3.7 billion disruption stretching 1,168 miles to the east of the fields and falling only a half mile away from the Standing Rock reservation, was, according to David Archambault II, the chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, fast-tracked through a permit process that granted it exemption from reviews required by the Clean Water Act. An ongoing lawsuit challenges the pipeline’s legality in light of provisions in the National Historic Preservation Act as well. The Standing Rock demonstrators identify themselves as “water protectors,” and thus, as guardians of lives and stories which have been or are being threatened.

The performance last night was split in two acts. During intermission, after Ortman played in concert with the film, the lights were turned on and the audience found themselves encircled by Koop’s paintings. The film (serendipitously) replicated Koop’s color palette of overcast blues. Vertical lines and drips dominate both Koop’s and Latimer’s imagery. Ortman’s music, too, trickled like a leak at first, before erupting like a geyser, or, yes, a violent spill. In the second act, Latimer projected a series of slides: faded, indigenous figures danced underneath clips from the Golden Age of Hollywood’s depictions of “Indians,” joined by repeated pictures of waves. The native figure in Latimer’s work is elusive, never fully captured by the camera, and bleached by the accentuated landscape.

Not far from Standing Rock, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, the sacred land of the Sioux was once ravaged for gold. The hills were then carved into an American monument: four presidential heads hewn from stolen rock. This was a shameless act, with little regard for the actual site and its history. NUUCA scrutinizes all the memories that become buried by such industrious acts, sometimes in a flurry of pictures, and at other times with moments fluidly transitioning into the next image or sound, always circling back to the water.