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March 28, 2002 Innovative explorations of identity at PhD in Humanities conference



by Eleanor Brown

Even a slug of a couch potato can become a utopian with the cheapest of camcorders.

“Utopian is a derogatory term for people who imagine there might be any other way to organize society,” announced Mark Saunders, the keynote speaker at last weekend’s R/évolution conference, organized by Concordia humanities doctoral students.

A media activist, Saunders titled his talk “Do Utopians Watch TV?” The answer is yes, but only if they make and control it. And that’s where the video camera comes in.

Television news never visits your neighbourhood just to see what’s up. Its cameras are never out there on the streets, so everyday reality is not reported.

“People need to document their own history. What exists on film or video is what is true, and it’s important we all engage in documenting them.” Even when the cameras are there, the message is often distorted, Saunders said.

In 1990, thousands gathered for a peaceful demonstration in London, England, against the poll tax (which imposed a flat tax “simply for being alive and over 18,” regardless of income). The next day, the television media reported that protesters had attacked police and property.

But Saunders said everyone there “had an experience of the event that was dramatically different” — police had attacked the crowd. Saunders’ team spent six months filming testimonials from those people, watching their home-made video, and pulling together what Saunders calls the real story.

Battle of Trafalgar ran on Britain’s Channel 4, won a series of awards, and resulted in an investigation of police conduct that concluded there had been some funny business. The documentary, said Saunders, is a revolutionary example of community-led investigative journalism. Those at street level know what’s really going on, and they must present their own stories.

Unlike most academic conferences, student organizers ensured R/évolution’s accessibility by making the conference free.

“We did charge the presenters a small amount,” said Jennifer Willet, “but this is grassroots revolutionary discourse. These are kids who can’t afford the groceries.”

No registration was required for the public; anyone could just pop in and out as they wanted. Willet, a student in the Interdisciplinary Humanities PhD program, is also a part-time faculty member in Studio Arts. She estimated that the March 22 opening night reception drew as many as 80 people.

The organizers hope to make the conference an annual event. Originally planned as a single-day event, the unexpectedly large response convinced organizers to make it a full weekend, eventually featuring 35 presenters.

Multi-faceted topics

Amid a sea of long and complex topic titles, Concordia student Kinga Araya’s was the pithiest: “Grounded.” The artist, who was profiled in CTR last April, presented a “critical yet creative essay regarding my recent cyber performance.” Her abstract goes on to note that the performance tackles “(im)mobility” and features multilingual narration on walking accompanying “images of me walking with three legs (one a real prosthesis).”

Robyn Diner, also a Concordia PhD student, explained “Ironic R/evolutions: Unruly Figures in Contemporary Native Performance.” She follows the First Nations performance trio Spiderwoman, a stereotype-busting troupe who play with irony.

“These ironies-in-motion can be linked to an unruly bodily aesthetic featuring the figure of the carnivalesque female grotesque who works to disrupt and reconfigure representations of ‘Indian-ness.’ Such strategic interruptions also inevitably serve to unsettle seemingly stable concepts like identity and memory.”

Another Concordia student, Kahente Horn-Miller, presented the history and philosophy of the indigenous Warrior Society’s flag. “It rose to prominence during the Oka crisis and has been adopted by both native and non-native activists in search of social justice,” she said.

Here are the other Concordia students and faculty members who presented papers or chaired sessions at the conference: Alana Baskind, Brian Crane, Jason Morgan, Shawn Bailey, Iain McKenna, Meredith Browne, Jennifer Willet, Ted Hiebert (chair), Isabelle St-Amand, Jason White, Owen Chapman, Anna Friz, Joel McKim, Alexandre Pirsch, Raluca Marie Fratiloiu, Robert Robertson, Katja MacLeod (aka Kessin), Shauna Yael Lancit, Terry Provost, Michael Kaiser, Sylvain Duguay, and Arshi Dewan.

The organizers were Candis Steenbergen, Jennifer Willet, Sylvain Duguy and Alana Baskind.