Constructing a Mythology
The third episode explores the stories that we create and what they can tell us about ourselves. We examine narrative construction, colonialism, and futurity through topics as diverse as R. Buckminster Fuller’s dymaxion chronofile and colonial slide lectures promoted by the British government. Featuring art historian Gabby Moser, artist Skawennati, and communication scholar Mirella Ntahonsigaye.
As a content warning We want to note off the top that in this episode we’ll be talking about thoughts of suicide and the history of the residential school system in Canada. These are difficult topics that may be traumatizing, please be aware.
For nearly two years of his life, in the late nineteen twenties, Buckminster Fuller didn’t speak…
to anyone. Not even his wife, who had recently given birth to their second child, Allegra.
According to Fuller most of the speaking that we do is tedious and unnecessary.
Quote from fuller lecture
This word business, you know, I said, I’m going to have to give myself a moratorium on speech.
And I made up my mind that I was not going to make a sound until I could determine what effect that sound would have on another human being.
Ridding himself of the burden of speech enabled Fuller to think more deeply.
During this self-imposed silence, Fuller reported that he would only sleep 2 hours a night: giving himself the maximum time needed for thinking about technology, that could – as he put it – ‘Save the World’.
But he didn’t arrive at this zen-like state by accident. Fuller’s origin story is an epic tale of trial, failure and loss…
And it’s a story that he’d share any time he had the chance.
This story often starts at Harvard in 1913. Fuller’s family members had attended Harvard going back 5 generations, but the legacy of higher education ended with Fuller. According to his own accounts, he cut classes, got into trouble for excessively socializing and missing his midterm exams, and inevitably got kicked out.
After Harvard, he was sent to work in a textile mill and later a meat-packing factory in Canada. This was where he came to understand the trades.
In 1915, he was readmitted to Harvard where he was promptly kicked out again before joining the Navy. In his lectures, Fuller would often rail against the conformity and “inside the box” thinking of formal learning institutions, despite
often lecturing within them.
In 1917, Fuller married Anne Hewlett, and a few years later, in 1922, he formed a company that patented and promoted a building-block method of construction along with his father-in-law who was an architect. Like higher education, Fuller often pitted himself against the conformist nature of standardized architecture. And despite being best known for his buildings, Fuller was never a certified architect.
Shortly after Fuller started the business with his father in-law, his young daughter, Alexandra, died at the age of four. Devastated, Fuller turned to alcohol and immersed himself in his career: often working 12 to 15 hours a day. In 1927, his father-in-law was forced to sell stock in the business, and the new majority shareholders dismissed Fuller, forcing him out of the company and leaving him penniless.
Quote from Fuller lecture
When nobody hired me. Nobody paid me. Nobody advised me to do what I was doing. I had no money, I had a dependant wife and child. How do you carry on from there and actually be effective?
This rock bottom point in his career came shortly after the birth of his second daughter,
he began to believe that his life was such a mess, that the only way out was suicide.
Quote from fuller lecture
Just about the time this new child was born. We were absolutely dead broke. We were in Chicago, no money and here’s this beautiful new life and I said well, as far as I can see I’ve really made a mess of things. Haven’t really been doing my own thinking and maybe the best thing is to get me out of the way? Well, my mother is still alive and my father-in-law is still alive and I said, it could be, even though they’re not well to do they could look out for my wife and child better than I’m doing.
One night Fuller found himself standing on the shore of Lake Michigan looking out at the cold dark water and contemplating ending his life when a voice came to him. It said ”You do not have the right to eliminate yourself. You do not belong to you. You belong to the universe.”
According to Fuller’s story, he made a bargain that night, that he’d quote “discover the operating principles of the universe and turn them over to his fellow man.”
This divine insight is what led to the vow of silence. After two years of quiet contemplation, and reflection on how to alter the direction of humanity, he reemerged transformed. He would now be The Buckminster Fuller; the prophetic visionary, who traveled the world, talking about the future.
Welcome to From Remote Stars. My name is Christina Battle, I’m a media artist and a part of the From Remote Stars exhibition.
In this three-part miniseries we’ll be thinking about a recently rediscovered recording of Buckminster Fuller that Greg Curnoe made one evening at The Hunt Club in London Ontario. In this third episode, how a powerful narrative can begin a new identity.
Episode three: Constructing a Mythology. The stories that we create, and, how we are created by our stories.
Intro music fades out
Buckminster Fuller would tell some version of his origin story at nearly every lecture that he gave. And over time the story seemed to shift and evolve. Fuller knew that there was power in crafting a good narrative. And It’s a classic underdog story:
He’s a free thinker whose ideas are too radical for mainstream institutions.
He’s rejected. He’s pushed to the brink. But then, a mysterious force speaks to him, and somehow, against all odds, he turns it all around to come out on top.
And it’s not like none of it was true. The big parts are true: he did attend Harvard
for a bit, he was in the Navy, and sadly he did lose his eldest child when she was four years old. But it’s the unique details of the story that add texture: things like the vow of silence, or being completely broke, or the manifestation of a voice that spoke to him and set him on his journey. These elements add a layer of useful hyperbole to the story – they push it to an extreme, making Fuller’s story almost mythical.
There are also, almost certainly, parts that are not true. What is interesting, is that we know about these mistruths because of Fuller himself. Not through his storytelling, although that did shift and bend over the years, but through a meticulously chronicled archive that he kept of his own life.
The Dymaxion Chronofile
We should probably take a second here to explain the word dymaxion… we mentioned it back at the start of the series, in episode 1.
Fuller liked to invent futuristic sounding words like ephemeralization, or livingry, but dymaxion was by far his favorite.
He created a Dymaxion car; a dymaxion house; and a dymaxion map, that we talked about in the last episode, and his archive was known as the Dymaxion chronofile.
The word dymaxion is a portmanteau of the words dynamic, maximum, and tension: an expression of his goal when designing (quote) “maximum gain of advantage, from minimal energy input.”
The Dymaxion Choronofile includes detailed notes, sketches and models created across Fuller’s career. But it also included more mundane things – incoming and outgoing correspondence between colleagues and friends, and even everyday minutiae like bills and receipts.
I mean, it’s not unusual for people to keep scrapbooks and collect stuff. And he just seemed to be one of these guys who did that. But then he just kind of kept doing it somewhere along the way. He just and so from a pretty early age, he was just kind of keeping what later became called a chronofile. It was sort of like anything that crossed his hands.
That was Fuller’s grandson Jamie Snyder talking about the chronofile. At more than two hundred thousand pages, the Dymaxion Chronofile has led historians to refer to Buckminster Fuller as one of the most documented human beings of all time.
Within the chronofile you can discover, that he didn’t take his vow of silence as seriously as he sometimes claimed – there were notes about meetings and correspondences between him and other people throughout those years, and in later iterations of the story he would even admit to talking to his wife...when it was absolutely crucial.
I couldn’t get into a complete moratorium because there came times that, for the absolute safety of my wife and child I had to say something. But my wife agreed to do all the talking to everybody that needed to be talked to and so I had almost a complete moratorium for almost two years
And then there’s the claim that he was completely broke and penniless after leaving the company that he’d started with his father-in-law. That’s really a matter of perspective. Fuller came from a well-to-do family, as did his wife, Anne, and despite claiming in his biography that he was forced to move his family into a tenement slum on the north side of Chicago, his records show that he and his family were actually living in a new apartment in a fashionable neighbourhood. On top of that, he had a full-time job that he would never mention in his narrative.
But the accuracy of the story wasn’t what mattered. It was the feeling that the story evoked. It emphasized how his innovations were repressed by the status quo, and how he was ahead of his time, a misunderstood genius come to bring light to the world.
And his story worked! Despite the existence of the chronofile, nearly every book, article… even the obituary written about Fuller, used details and so-called “facts” from Fuller’s fabricated oral history. It wasn’t until a historian named Loretta Lawrence went through the chronofile that we’ve been able to tease apart fact from fiction.
The tension between the documented events and the recounted story is the theme of this last episode in our series. In some sense it’s been the theme of this entire series. In episode 1 we heard how the stories of Regionalism and nationalism continue to hold sway in the city of London, Ontario; in episode 2 we looked at how even the construction of a map can impact what stories are given prominence, and now in episode 3 we are digging down even further into this idea of narrative construction – how it’s been used in the past and how we can consider the idea within our present context.
In her book Projecting Citizenship, art historian Gabrielle Moser explores ideas of narrative construction and documentation, by examining a widely circulated series of lantern slide lectures, promoted by the British government during the first half of the last century.
a group of volunteers who were attached to the British government came up with a scheme, as they called it, to try to represent the entire British Empire to the children of the Empire through a series of lantern slide lectures.
The lecture series, used in classrooms from 1902 to 1945 was created to extoll the virtues of imperial citizenship to school children in British colonies. The images that were projected onto school room walls, were of imperial citizens from around the world engaged in mundane daily tasks like: eating, working, or going to school.
As they’d scroll through the images, As they’d scrolled through the images teachers would read from a text book that told a story of global travel.
According to the lecture, citizens could board a ship and set sail to any destination within this great empire, and meet their fellow citizens around the globe
But then I think the bigger metanarrative that the book is trying to think about is how we visualize and I guess also narrate experiences of belonging, especially across very big differences, either gender or racial, sexual, class- based differences, and how we learn to recognise one another as fellow citizens. And that was one of the big rhetorical claims of the project. That despite all these differences between the members of the British Empire, we were all Imperial citizens.
Like Fuller defining his persona through the story that he told about himself – what he chose to hype up and what he chose to omit: the slide lecture series was an effort by the British government to paint a specific picture of itself and shape its perception.
In basic terms, it was an effort of propaganda:
An attempt to influence a younger generation across the empire into believing this narrative of inclusivity as opposed to the lived reality of many populations under British rule. The alternate stories, the story of the British Empire as an occupying force, the story of indentured labour, or the story of forced education were omitted from the series.
These parts of reality didn’t serve the narrative: the lectures were intended to be fun! Ultimately, they were an adventure story! A sea voyage: where colonial citizens from all around the globe could imagine hitting the high seas and connecting with one another.
There are lots of pictures of steamships to try to set the stage for this story about going on a sea voyage off to whichever destination you’re going to travel to in the Empire. And then when you arrive, you see, you know, sort of the streetscape of whatever city you’re in, as a viewer, or imaginary traveler. But there’s a real emphasis on human bodies in all of the pictures. So there are just people always in the foreground or middle ground doing usually pretty everyday, mundane tasks like working or going to school or purchasing food and groceries at a market.
Setting aside the problematic depictions of so-called “fellow citizens” there was also a lot of ambiguity around what citizenship even meant. What is a citizen? The lecture never defined citizenship in any legal sense.
In fact there was no legal definition yet: the first citizenship laws within the British Empire didn’t come about until 1947 in Canada, several years after the slide lecture series had stopped.
And so this is long before that because there is no law that says here’s a citizen in what looks like it becomes a kind of feeling, essentially, that the lectures are trying to inspire or conjure up what it means to to feel like an imperial citizen. And that feeling in the lectures usually comes from a form of recognition, a form of visual recognition, where other people see you and understand you could be a member of citizenry.
And as you may be able to imagine that feeling of citizenship was vastly different depending if you were a citizen living in London, England or if you were a subjugated population living in South Africa, or India, or the West Indies. It also doesn’t touch on the well established class system within British culture or on the diaspora who were living within England and whose positioning of citizen was also troubled in relation to what the term evokes.
I mean, if you are a cynical reader of colonial history, you could argue that it’s only advantageous for the government, the British Empire, to argue that it can’t be defined, because that way you can still implement very specific laws that dictate who can own property, who can vote, who can even travel within the empire and still claim that everyone belongs and is in some, again, very abstract way equal to everyone else.
Despite the rhetoric of equality in the lectures: the rights of citizens, along with their lived experience varied drastically depending on who they were and where they lived. This existential disconnect is described in reports that were filed by teachers, tasked with teaching the lecture to their students.
I mean, there are lots of ironies even in those few reports from teachers, including one who was along the Gold Coast of Africa, but they were far inland. So the children had never even seen the ocean. And the narrative of the lectures is entirely about a sea voyage that you get in a boat and you go somewhere else. And so the teacher talks about how she had to, it took her a long time to just get through the first lesson because she had to explain the ocean and what it looks like and what it does. And writing that despite the lectures being a story of mobility, because that’s one of the other constant themes, is that one can travel anywhere in the empire freely as a member of the British Empire, and that despite this promise, of course, her students are unlikely to leave even the village that they’re in. These very obvious paradoxes between what the story of the lectures, promises and then the lived experience of the people who were the target audience is very clear from those few reports.
There are also hundreds of additional photos in the archive that were never included in the final slide lecture. Like Fuller’s editing and embellishing of his own personal story, there are underlying motivations when crafting a narrative that dictate what is told and what is held back.
I often tried to think about and read about what was happening contemporaneously and whether there were sort of stories in the newspaper that the lectures didn’t want to draw attention to or make a connection to in that moment. And also, I think depending on the sort of politics of sovereignty and claims for sovereignty in different places, that also dictated what got included and what didn’t.
One of the pictures that was held back from the lecture was taken in British Columbia. In the archive, it’s titled Shack and it depicts a low one story building along the muddy edges of a riverbank. An older woman who’s dressed in a shawl and headscarf is holding the hand of a young boy who’s very neatly dressed.
He’s wearing like a very white shirt and suspenders and a cap, and he appears to be sort of dressed as a middle-class British subject for lack of a better word. But the caption tells us that these are indigenous people and it stuck out to me, that picture, for lots of reasons.
Indigenous populations appear in the archive in places like Australia, South Africa, and Canada. But there were very few indigenous peoples depicted in the Canadian lectures.
So this one sort of stopped me when I saw it, in part because it seems to have an obvious tie-in to schools as environments, which the lectures are both being seen in school and are also often about pictures of children in schools. And because there is this effort in the lectures to transform the listener or viewer into an imperial citizen, a kind of beautiful imperial citizen. And schools are, of course, a place where that also happens. And residential schools in North America are one of the most violent places that that happens. So I was trying to think through what that image does to either reinforce or disrupt the Colonial Office’s ideas about school and identity, I guess for lack of a better term. But also think about how that image might be haunted by the Indian residential school system. If we look at it from our position at the present.
The lantern slide series didn’t turn out to be the unifying colonial project that it set out to be. In many occupied countries during the 20th century, as the lectures were being viewed, global power dynamics were shifting. Over the century a slow, sometimes painful untangling from the myths of our colonial past has occurred. An untangling that is still ongoing today.
There are a few things that differentiate the attempted myth making of the lecture series with what Fuller was doing with his own story, and in his meticulously archived Chronofile. One obvious difference is that Fuller was telling the audience about himself. Fuller was crafting his own identity and he had had the luxury of control over his own story. In the slide lectures the subject of the story was the audience themselves: instead of allowing them to craft their own story, the slide lecture was trying to impose an identity onto its audience.
The other difference is maybe a bit more nuanced. Fuller’s myth was a story that he told and retold, editing and molding it in each new context to suit his intended purpose and his intended audience. The slide lectures, on the other hand, were image-based.
Of course, as soon as you choose photography. You’re inviting a whole bunch of unruly things to happen. The camera captures everything equally. It doesn’t know to pay attention to one thing and not another.
Unlike storytelling, that can adapt to changes over time, visual images are fixed. An oral narrative tells the story to an audience. An image doesn’t speak. It asks the audience to impose their interpretation, their history and their perspective onto the image. In the case of the slide lecture series, the images were used for so many years that the idea of what it meant to belong to, or to resist the British Empire, had time to evolve.
I mean, that was one of the first things that drew me to that archiving project was in reading that the photographs that were made and commissioned for the project in 1907 through 1910 were still being used in 1945 when the lectures were finally kind of pulled out of circulation. And that’s not only a very long period of time but also it’s a long period of time for British history, so much had changed in terms of who was even a member of the British Empire by the 1940s, that it’s hard to imagine the viewers of these slides not bringing very different and resistant readings to both the images and the narratives that were being offered to them. And that includes things like indentured labour really changing over the course of the life of the lectures, but also what it meant to be part of the empire of the public opinion about whether the empire was still a valuable and profitable project really changes dramatically over those 40 years. So I think I was trying to imagine how there is this quality of belatedness to photography, of course, that in analogue photography we expose an image, but we don’t get to usually see and fix it until much later. So there’s a delay there and there are always delays with claims to write that people articulate their right to belong. And it very infrequently, immediately comes to pass. There is a long, protracted process often of claiming those rights and actualizing them. And then there’s also a story, I think, within this project about education as a belated process. Right, that we tend to always learn things a little too late. It feels like that we wish we had known stuff sooner, always as learners, and that there’s that quality to the lectures as well.
As we were creating this episode the history of the colonial empire and the residential school system in Canada opened another chapter. Although the history of cultural genocide had long been known, and more widely introduced to the Canadian public in 2008 with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the gravity of residential schools has recently became much more clear.
Although the commission estimated that at least 6,000 Indigenous children’s deaths had not been accounted for. Until recently, the reality of their deaths hadn’t been made visible.
On May 27, 2021: 215 children were found in unmarked graves near a former residential school in Kamloops, BC. Since then, another 751 near a school in Saskatchewan, 182 near a school in Cranbrook, and, with many more searches now underway, by the time you’re listening to this there will surely be more discoveries. The callous disposal of these children’s bodies will always mark a reality in Canadian and colonial history that had been actively covered up, attempted to be ignored.
The importance of continual discourse around this tragedy is to push people with power to further revise and rewrite the colonial stories that still dominate the narrative of Canada. Beyond attempting to promote a more truthful and comprehensive sense of history, the acknowledgment of this reality as part of Canadian identity, could have an effect on policy and reconciliation moving forward.
Short musical gap
One of the things that I had noticed when making work about the future is that you cannot escape the past. And so I think what I’m learning is that history is actually a kind of material and we’re making decisions every day, like actually the future is, you know, in just a moment, like so every moment we’re making the future and every moment we’re deciding what it is that we want to take with us to the future and what we want to discard or leave behind in the past. And I think there’s a yeah, there’s a real tension there.
This is the artist Skawennati
Intro in Indigenous language. My name is Skawennati. I’m from the Turtle Clan, from the Kanienʼkehá꞉ka nation I was born in Kahnawá:ke, but I live in Tiohti:áke, a.k.a. Montreal. I’m an artist and I also co-Direct Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace. And I’m the program coordinator for a research partnership called the Initiative for Indigenous Futures.
In her work, Skawennati uses the virtual world of Second Life to create new narratives examining the past and pointing towards potential futures. In one work,
Timetraveller ™, a futuristic Mohawk bounty hunter, takes an audience on a tour of significant moments from the past, so that they can be examined through another lens. On this tour the audience isn’t getting the story of the past that has already been told to them, but an alternate experience of a past visualised through the eyes of this Indigenous timetraveller.
In the first episode of the series, the time traveler, who’s named Hunter, is dropped into a wooden lodge where men in red coats are sitting on benches, all looking towards the front, where a lantern slide lecture is being turned on a crank.
They called this thing a moving picture, except it’s not even automated. It’s a bunch of bad pictures sewn together and rolled onto a frame, with a couple of kerosene lamps behind it to make it glow or something
The image being featured in the slide lecture depicts a band of fearsome looking Sioux warriors invading and massacring a colonial town. The men in red coats gasp as they witness the brutal imagery and listen to the narrator at the front of the room retelling the horror of the attack.
They weren’t RCMP, but they were Northwest Mounted Police, I believe I’m saying that right. They were sitting there being taught history from the point of view, not even a historian who can at least pretend to be objective, but like from a military point of view in which they were trying to incite hatred, you know, they were there. They were trying to rile up these men to give them the reason why they should go out and kill Indians.
At the back of the cabin Hunter is watching as this skewed story is being used as a pretense, to anger the Mounted police and incite retributionary violence.
It really gets the audience riled up. This ridiculous, unsophisticated prop has done the trick and if I was one of these guys I’d be ready to kill the savages too. But I’m not buying it. If there’s one thing every Indian knows, it’s this: When it comes to history, always get a second opinion.
What was taught to me as fact and the only fact and the truth was critiqued at home. And so I you know, I feel like a lot of native people have had that kind of education, where they went to school and were told one thing and then they went home and they were given another possible alternative, you know, or another fact.
And so Hunter being, you know, having probably similar kind of education to me and a lot of other native people that I know, recognize that when he was sitting there seeing this lantern movie, you know, and so and I, I like the way I “always get a second opinion” was kind of like, you know, you hear that about getting a doctor’s advice. And so I feel like it put history in that kind of procession, if you will. Like to look at it that there’s even professionals who disagree, you know? And so though you might be taught by a professional one thing, another professional, another person with knowledge of the history which so many of our people are, even though they might not have a history degree or be teachers, they could disagree.
In the From Remote Stars Exhibition, Skawennati is presenting a work called She Falls for Ages. Like the Timetraveller ™ series, it revisits a well-known story but from another perspective.
She Falls for Ages is a sci fi retelling of the Haudenosaunee creation story. So for those of you who don’t know that story, there are many versions. But common to most of them is there is a place beyond the heavens, Sky World. In Sky World there‘s a special tree. Sometimes it is described as bearing many different kinds of fruit, other times as having blossoms that light the world. And it’s called the celestial tree. And anyway, this tree is in all these most of the stories, it is uprooted and creates a hole.
In the story, the woman falls through the hole out of Sky World, down through the heavens and lands in the sea, where animals help her onto the back of a giant turtle.
The turtle becomes Turtle Island. And so what I did in She Falls For Ages, the first thing is I really wanted to imagine Sky World as being another planet.
Typically storytellers depict Sky World as a pre-contact, Haudenosaunee paradise. But in She Falls For Ages Skawennati uses the blocky graphics and clean lines of Second Life to imagine the narrative in a new way.
I really wanted to imagine this other planet as all the things that I want to see in our world, so I want to see a sustainable use of technology and, you know, sustainable energy, peace, you know, also Sky World is often described in the stories as a place where which is very happy and they barely know sickness or death. So I wanted a nod to that, but also just wanted to have a place that was a really happy good place to live.
The other thing I wanted to do with She Falls For Ages is in most of these stories, Sky Woman, the pregnant woman, is often shown, you know, is either considered, I guess, to be very clumsy because she falls through this hole or worse, she’s pushed by her husband. And I kind of thought, well, you know, the Mohawk women I know are pretty strong, they’re not usually pushed around by anybody. Iroquois people Haudenosaunee people are a matrilineal society. So I would believe there has always been a respect for women and there’s been a balance and equality between the sexes in that society. So it just seemed to me really weird that the husband would push her. Not impossible, but I thought it was an opportunity in my telling of the story to show Sky Woman as a brave, basically astronaut, explorer and world builder. And so she jumps through the hole.
Ethereal Space Travel Music For film
Instead of setting the world in the past, Skawennati imagines Sky Woman as a fearless astronaut, launching herself into the unknown. And she imagines Sky World as a place in the future, with windmills producing energy, hovering cars and dome houses. In a lot of ways Skawennati’s imaginings of the future are also representations of the past.
Many viewers may associate this type of imagery with Fuller and other futurists, but the dome houses are drawn from Haudenosaunee imagery. A half circle pattern often found in Haudenosaunee beadwork can have several meanings, one of which is in reference to Sky Dome, another name for Sky World. This revisionism in the work mirrors what is being done with the myth that Skawennati is retelling. It also points to the evolution of history more generally, how, by revisiting stories from the past and looking at them from a new perspective, we affect how history itself is carried forward into the future and how we see ourselves.
What I’ve realized in trying to depict the future is that you can’t escape the past. When I made Time TravelerTM my goal was to show Indigenous people in the future. And yet we kept going back into the past. I kept re-creating sets from the past in Second Life, you know, and, you know, sometimes for myself as an artist, you know, you do things that you feel are necessary in the moment. And it’s only later that I realize what it is I’m doing, why that was necessary or the meaning behind it even. Of course. Yeah, of course. There’s a meaning for me to do it in the first place, but there’s a deeper meaning or other meanings that show themselves to me later. And so I think I’ve realized that I mean, the future is continuously being made from the past. Like history is the material of the future, you know what I mean? You’re you know, and so we’re making decisions all the time about what to keep today and what to discard, what we’re bringing with us into the future.
The unfortunate circumstances of our global situation, our pandemic, I think is revealed the reality of how unsustainable our current way of navigating epistemologically, ontologically even is just not working and I think they say that and I say they kind of anecdotally, I think this comes out of like psychology studies or something, but that being able to see yourself into the future allows you to sort of move back and think about what you’re doing presently to reach that future. So to kind of paraphrase Tina Campt’s sort of definition of black feminist futurity, which is like, you know, it’s not just about what is but what ought to be. And that requires a kind of pivoting between, you know, this idea of a forward and a backward and a now. So what’s happening now? Why is it happening now? What does it have to do with before and what will it have to do with what’s going to happen?
This is Mirella Ntahonsigaye.
It should be said, for the record, that we created this podcast during a really notable moment in history. The From Remote Stars exhibition was delayed because the coronavirus pandemic brought the world to a standstill in early 2020. While in lockdown, the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police ignited global protests. This international fervor over police brutality was amplified in Canada by the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet. As a larger segment of the population throughout the world began challenging authority structures they also began confronting the symbols that reinforce the history of those structures. Statues of colonial and confederate oppression that had long been opposed, began being forcibly pulled down all over the world.
As the statues fell, epistemological ideas about what is known, what stories are told and whose perspectives are seen, began entering conversations. There was an acknowledgement that history is never a complete story. History and public records skew in favour of those who hold power, and artifacts and monuments are erected in order to maintain that power – that narrative.
Listening to Fuller’s 1968 visit to London, Ontario recorded by Greg Curnoe during this particular moment, it was hard not to hear it as a small glimpse of an alternate history. The recording is this short moment in Fuller’s very well chronicled life that somehow lived outside of his massive Dymaxion Chronofile, tucked away in the basement of the AGO. But in small ways it adds another dimension and broadens our understanding of his story. It offers a moment into his life that potentially alters his own historical record.
But to paint an even broader understanding of Fuller’s history is to look at the context that he existed within. When Fuller gave his lecture in London, Ontario in 1968 his ideas weren’t completely unique. Ideas like: sustainability, spaceship earth, futurism – they were very much in the public consciousness, but viewed through different paradigms.
Around the same time that Fuller was circling the globe educating his predominantly white academic audiences about spaceship earth, Afrofuturist musicians and thinkers like George Clinton and Sun Ra were performing, and giving lectures at Berkeley introducing their ideas around Mothership earth, or Slaveship Earth.
At the time, the energy globally was sort of like A series of civil rights movements were happening, a shift, I think, in a lot of people’s ways of thinking about how to be, you know, whether you want to talk about hippie culture or the black power movement or the emancipation of several formerly colonized countries. There is obviously a huge shift that was happening around that time. And I’d be interested to know how aware he was of that. From what I understand, he is a well traveled man, a traveling man, if you will. And it just makes me wonder, like. You know what was his awareness of some of the displeasures that people had with not just how they were being treated personally, but how they have been treated and how they predict they will continue to be treated? I don’t think movements happen because they want things to only be fixed for the present moment. It’s in anticipation of a better time. So I wonder if his idea of making the world work for one hundred percent of humanity. If he was thinking about, you know. Was he thinking about kind of just like, how do I deal with how do we deal with all of this in one fell swoop? Is it possible? I don’t know if it’s because he thought that all of these what can seem like individual issues somehow seems cumbersome. I don’t know. My head was just this kind of thinking about, like, you know, what did he mean by humanity? What was, you know, if I had to go back in time or if he were to sort of appear now and have this conversation with me, I would those would be the questions that I would ask. Like, you know, if this idea of being able to resolve as many problems as possible in the least amount of time. Who’s a part of that solution? because I can’t imagine that he’s the only person on a personal level to want that to actually happen, and that’s where I think some of the, you know, our black studies that’s dealing with, ideas of ontology and, you know, humanity, humanness, I think kind of comes into play really well, which is there a genre of humanity you have in mind here?
Mirella is a PhD Candidate at Carleton University studying Black futurity in music, film and literature. Earlier this year we talked with her about the alternate history transpiring at the same time as Fuller’s talk in London, and what she thinks about this moment that we’re currently in – where state violence has led to protests that have forced changes in perspectives.
What I am realizing is that. What’s happening is there’s certainly a moment, I think, of visibility on these discussions, but the kinds of conversations that happen in, you know, in black studies, both community-wise and in academic intellectual spaces, have been going on for a very long time. And unfortunately, what happens is in circumstances, in situations of like public kind of phenomenon, typically negative ones, that’s where these voices kind of amplify. Right. And there’s a burden to that. Right. It’s like when you know. Violence against black and brown bodies are hyper visual or hyper visible, these conversations in tandem are more visible because the people that are in charge of allowing these conversations to happen want a quick solution like it doesn’t look good on their CV. Let’s just say metaphorically speaking, which spans five hundred years, but. You know, I think I find a lot of comfort in knowing that. And that the black people, the black diaspora of the black community, global community, like we all seem to kind of be on our own trajectories, but there is an entanglement. There is like we’re sort of meshed together. I like to think of it as like a soul train line, like you are all on beat to account of some kind of song. But at the end of the day, you dance, you get your chance to kind of dance down the line and everyone around you supports you and gets into it. And it’s like this, like I said, this oscillation between the collective and the personal, it’s just it’s so we all matter. And we’re all important.
As statues continue to fall – hopefully, as Skawennati has said, we’ll begin to create new building blocks from our past, and begin to revise our history in the present, and dream up new progessive visions for the future. The work of re-addressing our archives and adding to the past is ongoing, and capturing perspectives of under-represented, marginalised, repressed, or oppressed populations is both difficult and necessary.
But the archive as a symbol of memory as like a capsule of history has always been interesting to me, for one as something that like, I’ve always wanted to kind of engage with tangibly and tactically, like I’ve always wanted to go into an archive and kind of experience the structure of it. But I’ve also always been critical of the archive. It’s very pertinent, I think, to the ideas of thinking about the future because I and I’m not alone, obviously, this isn’t an original idea, but the archive represents this idea of anticipation of how the future will be read. It is thinking about preservation and preservation assumes that something is going to be there beyond its original time. So as far as like where myth and all of that comes from, like I like or fiction in general, I think I’m more, I think, equipped in thinking about fiction. It’s the same way as I feel about thinking about the future in that it speaks to whoever is is the author of whatever it is that you’re reading that’s concerned with, you know, ideas of the future or is writing a piece of fiction, I think speaks more about that person’s contemporary time and what they think of and what they’re anticipating to come or where they’ve come from. But then as as far as the archive is concerned, to me, it’s always been about a project for the future. The archive isn’t designed for the person that is there right now. It is designed for the people to come.
The archive, in its most unexamined sense, is in place to reinforce propaganda about the past. It is edited and selected by the person or party being archived through what they choose to document and in certain cases by what they choose to suppress. This is something that archivists are beginning to grapple with. The work of restructuring archives, thinking about the stories they tell and new ways to shed light on gaps in history is an important goal for the archivist or museum curator.
In a similar way, the From Remote Stars exhibition is an effort to revisit the past. To determine what we choose to focus on and what we want to bring forward with us into the future. The artists in the exhibition present works that respond to the story of Fuller and his futurist vision, including some works that speak directly to the old recording of Fuller in 1968.
Their works mark a decision of what segments of the past to highlight here in our present. Those choices speak to Fuller and his impact theorising and visualising a potential future in the 1960’s, but more importantly the works speak to the concerns of our present.
They are an accumulation of perspectives, looking back, and looking forward, and deciding what is worth considering at this moment in the collective history that we are currently creating, and what should be saved for the future.
This episode of From Remote Stars was written and produced Accounts and Records with research and scripting assistance from me, Christina Battle. Kirsty Robertson and Sarah Smith are our supervising producers. Additional research and fact checking assistance by Alyssa Tremblay and Mirella Ntahonsigaye.
Our music is by Habalayon and our theme music is by Adam Sturgeon. The episode was mixed, edited and sound designed by Angela Shackel and Braden Labonte with additional mixing help from Teresa Morrow. Archival footage from the British Council, the Bartlett Lectures and MIT video archive. Excerpts from Skawenatti’s film She Falls for Ages and Time Traveller TM.
Big thanks to everyone we talked to for this episode, Gabrielle Moser, Skawennati and Mirella Ntahonsigaye.
From Remote Stars is a production of Carleton University in partnership with Western University, with the support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.