Resistance Art:

🕔Oct 04, 2011

The purpose of a writer is to keep civilization from destroying itself. – Albert Camus

A big job, that. Some days, I don’t feel up to it. I sit at my desk, staring out the window at the yellowing leaves and long for diversion. A trashy mystery, perhaps, or a hike into the Babines.

So what is it that sends me back to work, to find words (for words are my craft) to convey my concern, communicate my joy and, perhaps, move others to resist?

Projects like Enbridge’s Northern Gateway crude oil pipeline.
When I heard how its 1,173-kilometre route would cross more than 700 creeks, I thought of Al Purdy’s wonderful poem, “Say the Names,” a riff on the musical names our rivers have been given. Yes, I thought. That’s something I can do. A kind of bearing witness. So I started a blog that collects those names and their stories, lifting them off the maps and into our imaginations.

I’m not alone.

A year ago, Frank Wolf and Todd McGowan travelled the proposed route and made a film about their journey, On the Line. Members of the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP) have travelled the pipeline and tanker routes to draw attention to their beauty. Their photographs are being exhibited across the North and in August’s National Geographic. Visual artists, musicians and poets in Prince George arranged a series of exhibits and performances. Children in Kitkatla created pictures to express their love of their territory and concerns about tanker traffic. 10-year-old Ta’Kaiya Blaney wrote a song asking for protection for our coast from oil spills.

What is it about this particular project that has drawn artists to create such diverse resistance?

Medium of resistance
Christine Leclerc, a Vancouver poet, has taken action around the Alberta tar-sands because she’s concerned about the impacts of climate change. “Construction of the Enbridge pipelines means expansion of a project that is already harmful.”

Writing is both her motivation and her medium of resistance. “The more I wrote, the more important it became for me to take action as well. We did some writing workshops which generated a discussion about the scale of these projects and the scale of the impacts. The planet is a finite space and capitalism acts like it’s not. Talking about these things on my own and talking about them in community is profoundly different.”

Leclerc expanded that community with a website, inviting poets to contribute work to equal in length the 1,173-km pipeline. “The Enpipeline” has precipitated an astounding response—close to 50,000 km of poetry with contributors from all over the world—and will be coming out in print in 2012.

Poet and playwright Valerie Laub is also motivated by the connection between climate change and the tar-sands. “Looking at pictures of what they’ve done to the earth—the ducks in the tailings ponds…I’m a feeling person and it depresses me.”

In response to those emotions, she wrote Alberta Tarzans: The Musical, a play incorporating slapstick comedy, music, and hard-hitting research to portray a fictional Enbridge PR rep drawn into resistance by a cast of characters that includes a moose, a duck and a salmon, then toured it across the Northwest.

“In a play like Tarzans, the release of laughter supports the people who are already onside, not so much to change people’s minds. But the play has lots of information and people said they were informed, and motivated to take action.”

Deeper changes
But when does the artist turn into the preacher? It’s a fine line many of us struggle with.

Smithers-based artist and musician Facundo Gastiazoro, whose family had to flee a brutal military dictatorship in Argentina that tortured and killed resisters, addresses this head-on. While his work reflects upon those events, he does not want to create his art around specific issues.

“If you’re telling a story of your struggle, documenting it, creating a testimonial, that’s the role of art. But as soon as you start making it more about a specific issue, you risk preaching and self-righteousness and it becomes a one-way conversation.”

He looks at the long term. “You go for deeper changes in the soul, and those aren’t about issues. They are about your priorities in life, your values. You can sing about the value of the river and how beautiful it is.”

Which is exactly what musician Dorothy Giesbrecht was trying when she suggested the Bulkley Valley Classical Strings Society and the Smithers Art Gallery coordinate a month of artists celebrating rivers.
“When I talked to them about the project, I said it’s not going to be against anything. It wouldn’t have happened if it was.”

Using the theme of salmon, the Salmon Symphony project was developed over the course of a year and involved about 100 people from many different backgrounds. Cameron Wilson of Vancouver’s Joe Trio was commissioned to write a composition. “A Fragile Magic” was practiced and then performed along with Joe Trio members in May. Art installations, a dance performance, and local songwriters also contributed.

Like Laub, Giesbrecht speaks out directly in resistance to some projects like the proposed pipelines. “But it can’t be my life,” she says. “It has to be celebrating and realizing the beauty of place. Like the river that unites us, that connects us to the landscape and to each other.”

Looking at the watersheds potentially affected by the Enbridge project, “the river” becomes most of BC and much of northern Alberta and the Northwest Territories: the Peace/Athabasca, the Fraser, the Skeena. When you think about climate change…well, that takes it to the international level.

Synergy of skills
Toronto conservation photographer Neil Osborne, an ILCP member, was commissioned in June to photograph the pipeline route from the air. “Most of my work has been international and I was glad to come to a project that brought me back to Canada.”

His work as a conservation biologist shifted when he “got tired of measuring sea-turtle shells and started photographing them instead.” Wanting to make an impact beyond the science, he has made conservation photography his life. He also works with conservation groups to determine how best to use the images.

“I think of myself as blending my science background with photojournalism skills. The synergy comes from the different platforms and types of media to show how people feel about these things. These collaborations bring about this synergy. We need all these voices…we need to hear them.”

Brian Huntington is a Hazelton-based conservation biologist who also came to photography through his work. As well as making striking and evocative photographs of the landscape, he has been documenting community resistance to threats to the Skeena watershed: coal-bed methane, oil pipelines, tanker traffic.

“If I’m lucky enough to be standing in a place and seeing this moment of resistance, I’m often the only one with a camera. I feel a responsibility to capture that. It brings out a special kind of beauty. Think how strongly humans relate to images of other animals resisting each other, resisting us, fighting over food. Standing up and fighting back is such a natural thing. And when they do, how they shine!”

Bearing witness, taking action, and digging in deep. These are all ways in which Camus would, I suspect, argue his case. It is likely what Nadine Gordimer, a South African writer whose novels are infused with her opposition to injustice in her country, meant when she set down her credo by quoting another Camus statement: The moment when I am no longer more than a writer, I will cease to write.

Gordimer and Camus are just two of the many artists who have shown us ways to dig in deep and bear witness, who motivate us to resist lethargy and despair and get back to the work of making art.

To see more of the art and writing mentioned above, go to: