Monday, April 11, 2016

RIP Evan Sabourin. I will remember all of the good things, and there were many good things about our time cohabiting together at Macaulay House.

Photo by Rémi

Friday, January 15, 2016

finale: trial by toe + abandonment anxiety

It's time to conclude this blog with a final post. There was so much that happened in the final days of my residency at KIAC, that I hardly know where to begin... but I will begin on my birthday, the day I left, New Year's Eve, Dec 31.

I took advantage of the event of my birthday in Dawson City, where you can go to every bar for a free drink. Since there were only two or three bars open in town in December and I didn't have much time left before my flight, I had to choose strategically. I decided to do the toe. It was only appropriate. I'm not going to pay $5 to put a dirty, rotten toe in my mouth, but for free, I will try it just once.

Health regulators say the drink has to be at least 40% alcohol. I had mine in Jameson.
And so I joined the ranks of The Sourtoe Cocktail club, started long ago by, you guessed it: a New Brunswicker. I didn't know that Capt. Dick was a New Brunswick 'river rat' until I read the ballad on the certificate that comes with the completion of the drink. So despite the fact that the sourtoe cocktail is the touristy thing to do in Dawson, I was proud to do it anyway. Besides, I earned my stripes: the toe stuck itself to the bottom of my glass and I had to tap the glass to get it to roll down to touch my lips (a prerequisite for truly achieving the feat), aaaaaand I ended up with the toe actually in my mouth, as it rolled quickly and with some force.

Before I rewarded myself with a blackened toe between my teeth, however, I borrowed Lulu's van and drove around Dawson abandoning my finished works. This was fun. The first work, a skull in a box, was installed in the infamous Pit, atop its piano. I figured this would be a place where it could be seen and appreciated by most of Dawson, and it seemed to fit the rest of the décor quite nicely. This piece, entitled "Cannibals" is connected to the Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in story of Moosehide Slide, as retold in an audio clip on the project website. I'll be uploading pics of the four abandoned objects to the project website in short order. Visit the Pit to see the skull in person.

The resting place for cannibal remains, Westminster Hotel, which contains The Pit.
Another object was abandoned in a cave, a cave where many visitors have gone and many more will venture. I left the object with a famous storyteller who has agreed to be my collaborator in this project, and will personally pass on the info about how to find the story of the object, as well as details of the object itself.

A third object was abandoned somewhere people sometimes go by invite to have a guaranteed good time in Dawson, again guarded by a storyteller who has also agreed to protect and pass on information about the object.

A fourth object was abandoned in a dark place, a public and enclosed space but a space where it may not be found until sometime in the Spring or Summer. That is my hope. I'm sure it will be a shock when it is discovered.

I was satisfied with every final location I chose, knowing the works would be shared and/or protected until found. In the end, I didn't leave them to just deteriorate into the landscape because they were too beautiful and I knew that some animal would likely eat them before any person found them. Also, I needed a vessel to put the project website address onto. So, while they were still abandoned and not meant for a gallery, I did give them a more museological display, going against one of the ideals I typically strive for with my work: ephemerality. But, in the end, I'm OK with that!

Here is the project website, which is still in progress for now, but which contains all of the stories as audio clips for your listening pleasure.

The day I left Dawson was my lucky day - I didn't have to pay for my luggage on the flight out, which is a miracle! Happy Birthday to me. That night, after an awesome birthday dinner in Whitehorse with one of my longest-standing best friends, I went out at midnight to greet the new year and look up into the sky. Just then, a single ribbon of aurora borealis streaked in an arc directly over my head, the only aurora visible in the sky. It rippled for about five minutes and was gone. Thus, I started my new year with a cosmic blessing, which has so far proven to be one of abundance and goodness. I adore the Yukon.

Thanks to all of the special people I had the opportunity to connect with in Dawson City! I guarantee you, I WILL be back.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

from inside the skull of the sun

Last night I corkscrewed the cooked brains out from the inside of two marten skulls. It was truly disgusting -- I don't think I could ever eat brains, following this grotesque activity, so there goes my career as a zombie. Caveman Bill had shown up at my door with two skinned, frozen marten carcasses that he collected for me from a trapper back a couple of days ago, and I finally got around to doing something with them after letting them hang out in the freezer on top of the ice cube trays and perogies awhile. I'm sure the smell of cooking marten drove out the weak-stomached from the house. Perhaps there is a better way to quickly clean bones but I'm a self-taught butcher. I regret that I didn't get to meet the woman who was originally supposed to be my co-resident. She is both an accomplished artist and the daughter of a big game hunter, so would have been an excellent match I'm sure, and someone who I might have learned from with regards to cleaning carcass.

Anyway, I got to experience first-hand what Caveman Bill had told me about bad animal juju. Marten meat is inherently foul, a very dark red flesh that cooks to a deep brown-purple and stinks of dark turkey meat combined with old fish (likely due to the marten diet). It's certainly not the most foul thing I've ever cooked, but it was a fairly pervasive stench. If I'd had time, I would have buried the bodies and let insects do the work of cleaning the bones, but I'm here for only another three days.

Midnight Dome sun and sundog.
In brighter news, I did an epic hike to the Midnight Dome yesterday, during what was probably the most gorgeous day I've seen since arriving in Dawson. The light here is always special and stunning even when slight, but yesterday it was fairly mind-blowingly beautiful. The Dome is the highest point in these parts, where everything is visible all the way around for miles. Sweat was pouring down my spine while I hiked straight up for close to 2 hours in -25˚ weather - no hat or mitts required. My Canadian sherpas for this hike were Blair and Carly, and a sweet Scottish fella named Jim. The low light was so richly golden orange that all shadows in the snow appeared deep blue in contrast. On the way down, we slid on our bums in our snowpants, all the way down the steep power line cut, whipping out of control in a well-worn bobsled-like path. It was possibly the longest and most fun sliding of life.

Here are some more highlights from the climb up:

Work-wise, my project labour for this residency is nearing completion and I'm SO completely thrilled with the results. I love the objects. I will document them well before abandoning them, but part of me would like to keep them all. The stories will always be mine and will always be shared. One of the artifacts will be left at an indoor site, though I won't say where. All of the abandonment sites won't be easy places to get to. Carlos Jabbour has built me four beautiful wooden boxes now to house the objects (I only finished four of the original six planned). They all have clear plexi fronts screwed on, so that the contents are visible. Everything is a bit roughly constructed, but gorgeous and in keeping with Dawson's general ramshackle, makeshift vibe. The storytelling website with the audio clips (osteobiographies) is underway as well. I've learned more about what works well with this bone making process so I'm looking forward to repeating it again somewhere else!

Sunday, December 27, 2015

riverwalkers, a contemporary caveman + caribou balls

Riverwalker on the Yukon.

This post is dedicated to Caveman Bill, who is one of my favourite people in Dawson. He's kind, generous and intelligent, as well as being a keeper of a lot of interesting history of Dawson, from over the past couple of decades that he's been here.

Christmas Eve day, my partner and I forged a new path across the Yukon River, directly across from frozen bank to bank in the direction of Bill's cave. I had a steaming hot loaf of Macaulay House Bread, straight out of the oven and wrapped in a tea towel, to give to him.

Big, beautiful blue ice chunks litter the river. We follow animal tracks across. After a couple of -29˚ days, we are sure the river is frozen solid. 

The entrance to Bill's cave - he climbs up the front of it to find me Spook's skull, which he still has.

Inside Caveman Bill's cave, looking towards the front entrance (that he built).

Inside, we enjoy a cup of green tea that just sits on the wood stove and never gets cold, even though it takes an hour to drink it all.

There's Bill sitting on his bed at the rear of the cave, the deepest part. (Click any image to enlarge it)
Caveman Bill is a prolific woodworker, and the inside of his cave is full of beautifully crafted dovetail jointed boxes, cabinets, cupboards and desks that he's built and embellished with sweet designs carved into the front or top. The day we visited, he was just finishing a lap desk that he was about to give away to the person whose name he'd drawn in the Secret Santa draw. I was astounded that he'd give such an exquisite handmade gift - it was a writing-style desk top, with a hinged lid and underneath compartment, plus a side drawer that pulled out. His reply to my astonishment over the gift was that he donates all kinds of these hand-carved trunks, chests, boxes, etc to local fundraisers. I'm not sure he realizes the value of his work, or if he does, it doesn't compare to the value of the joy he gets from doing it.

He shows us some of his unfinished works in progress, kept outside under a sheet of plywood.

Speaking of woodworking, my partner and I built two boxes today of scrap wood we found in one of the Macaulay House sheds, for to house my 'bones' when they are abandoned outside. I aged them after they were built, with a wash of black acrylic, to look like so much of the old wooden structures in Dawson City. When they were finished, I loved them so much that I wanted to take them home to Montreal instead of abandoning them, but they were easy to make AND taking anything out of Dawson by plane is extremely pricey, as you pay per kilo. An abandonment project is a very good idea for KIAC residency. The boxes will have clear plexi fronts, so that the bones inside (and the web address leading to the audio clips of osteobiographical tales) can be seen without having to be tampered with.

Working in my studio.
Crystals are growing now on my hog gut matrices to produce the bones for my project.
I have feasted at different feasts continuously over the past three days, and I have to say that my favourite foods of all were Dan's amazingly delicious caribou meat balls, and Lulu's amazingly delicious moose meat stew. It was my first time eating caribou, that magical beast with the whirligig legs. I fared extremely well with local food, particularly considering that I could have been stuck with this Yukon standard for xmas dinner:

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Captain Dick's Spook, the conscientious raven + other solstice stories

  Play and read below.

The solstice fire I attended this year was in Sunnydale. The fire was fueled by burning a barn that had been picked up by a tornado and flattened in the past year, and it got so hot it burned up some of the fur on my hood.

Dawson has more New Brunswickers than I can shake a stick at. I'm the entire way across the country, within a day's drive of the arctic circle and, lo and behold! As I join a solstice fire way the hell out in Sunnydale (a remote, off the grid community which I'm not even sure is on the map), I'm informed by the first guy I meet that he's from Fredericton, knows me, knows my kid and my kid's father and dated so-and-so that I know. Throughout the night, I continue to meet more New Brunswickers who have all ditched the east coast for the wilderness of the far-flung Yukon outback. I'm pretty sure there were about five or six of us at this little gathering, and they don't account for the entirety of the New Brunswick contingent that I've met here. So, my solstice? Finding home away from home in a cold, remote place. Warms the insides better than whiskey. I'm slowly being sucked in to this vortex, but that's apparently what Dawson does.

Caveman Bill told me another story as we chatted around the solstice fire. This one's about Spook, one of Captain Dick's old horses, that Caveman Bill had to retrieve out of the snow and ice. Captain Dick is of sourtoe cocktail fame, but apparently back in the day, he had three horses: Spook, Coco and Black (three shades of black?). Well, back then, says Bill, there had been no such thing as the Humane Society (or SPCA) and there were always a pack of half-wild dogs running loose around Dawson. One night, during a deep freeze of about -50˚, Spook got loose. The wild dog pack sniffed this out and started chasing and nipping and pestering Spook, and ran him until he sweat so hard and so much in that -50˚ weather that he froze himself to death, steaming ice vapour off his body, and dropped over solid, on the spot. Well, Caveman Bill was "hired" by Captain Dick and his wife to go take a chainsaw and get Spook out of the ice. So, Bill tells me he sawed that horse up like a loaf of bread, separating him into pieces that he sold off to local folks to feed their dogs with, and even ate some himself (that was his payment for the job). I told him that horse meat is a specialty item in grocery stores in Quebec, so that was high livin'. Anyway, Dawson has an unfortunate history from its early gold prospector days of horses dropping dead around here. I'm not 100% sure I'll use this story of Bill's for my project or not, but I just might. What's great about it, other than the fact that it's tied to the local geography, is that it's a story I don't think a lot of people know, which is true of most of the stories I've collected for this project. Bill is an excellent storyteller, too.
I also used my time at the solstice fire as a chance to record the sound of a roaring blaze, which I think I might tie in to the story about the Saint of Dawson, Father Judge, who built the first church here and then watched it burn down not much later.

Me and a zoom recorder laying on the river ice.

Earlier in the day, I went down to the still-open part of the Klondike River and recorded some river ambience for my latest story, the one about the shoulder blades and Otter Woman, one of the Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in myths. That audio piece is now done, so I've completed three osteobiographies. I have three bone matrices done, including Little Charlotte's hand, a shoulder blade and a dog leg. I'm working on a skull now to go with the story of Moosehide Slide, another Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in myth. The story of Moosehide Slide is a story that everyone knows around here, and was my first bone story when entering Dawson, told to me by Dan. However, I've collected other tidbits to go along with that story, told to me by Jody at the Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in Heritage Centre, and by Caveman Bill. So, I'm going to narrate a fuller compilation of their three stories. I need the Father Judge story to get more interesting for me--I need an additional bit of info from somewhere, beyond what is already out there on public record. I'm sure it will come.

To finish for today, let me tell you about an interaction I had this afternoon with a conscientious raven. Out in front of Bonanza Market, close to the corner of 2nd and Princess Streets, there is a certain twisted, naked tree that always has a scattering of ravens in its branches, watching down. I'd been noticing the ravens all day, feeling they were cooking up a plot of some kind and I wanted in on it. So, I pulled a piece of fresh cranberry muffin out of my bag. One of the ravens saw this and gave a chortle-kind of signal to the other ravens and a half dozen or so flew down to the road in front of me. I squatted with my hand out, muffin bits offered. None were brave enough to get that close, except for one big fluffy one, his neck feathers all ruffled out like a black tux. He'd hop over, then back off a few hops. He kept doing this, and finally I said, "It's ok, I'm your friend." I thought he was scared but alas, he was infinitely wiser than me. Knowing himself better than I, he hopped over again, looked me in the eye, then tap-tap-tapped his sharp spike of a beak down on the icy road in front of me, hammering at the ice, and then looked up at me again to see if I got the message. He was telling me very plainly that his razor beak was way too sharp to grab something out of my soft hand, and that I should just throw it down for him. I immediately understood, and tossed it to him. I thought it an extremely kind gesture on his part. Walking back to Macaulay House afterwards, my partner said to me, "You realize that the raven was telling you his beak was too sharp..."

My manfriend arrived yesterday, just in time for Yukon Christmas madness. We are hoar-frosted.
Tomorrow I'll tell you about the carcasses Caveman Bill arrived at my door with today.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

tombstone, whiskey + wilderness tips

Tombstone Territorial Park. That's Evan to the right, in the way of my shot.

I now have three stories recorded as audio files for my project. One is perfect, one is half-finished and one needs a bit of a tweak (my ravens are still too loud in the background). They are coming along really well and I'm pleased. I love this part of the project, because the stories are arriving fluidly at my ear through the local populace, and retelling them is extremely fun. I was given a bone story last night by a British sailor (you know what they say about how there's one in every port...) but his bone story wasn't directly tied to the Dawson landscape and so I can't really use it. I'll tell you his story here, anyway though because it's a good one:

He told me, over some shared whiskey drunk from Lulu's Norwegian skol cup, that back when he was at sea, there was a surgeon on board. Apparently this surgeon was perversely obsessed with performing surgery and proposed to this certain sailor that he allow his leg to be amputated. The surgeon promised to craft a stylish wooden leg in return, just like a sailor should have anyway. He had his trusty handheld bone saw on board, and just needed to be given a chance at slicing and stitching someone up. Thankfully, I'll tell you, this sailor still (I think) had both legs when I saw him. Cheers to that. And cheers to that again. And again. The trick for me around here is to double fist a fat glass of water with that glass or five of whiskey.

This town is one of great stories shared generously. I also learned some interesting wilderness tips from Caveman Bill last night, such as that bear should not be eaten at a certain time of year, in the spring, when they are catching all the salmon because the bear meat will taste fishy. Someone else told me that humans should never eat other meat-eaters, just grass eaters. Bill said the same for certain ducks: there are grass-eating ducks and fish-eating ducks, and you don't want the fish-eating ducks because they taste like rotten fish. You know the grass-eating ducks from the fish-eating ducks because of how low or high they sit in the water. One is more buoyant than the other, probably the fish-eating ducks because I think the grass eating ducks have to dive down. Or it's the other way around. He also said that no humans or animals will eat wolverine, because wolverines have bad wolverine juju (magic energies) and taste like shit. Lulu (an awesome filmmaker) throws a good party and thankfully there are no pictures, moving or otherwise, to prove it.

What I do want to share, however, is more pics of Tombstone Territorial Park, where I spent the whole of yesterday, in absolute awe. I gawked so much that my shoulders were sore at the end of the trip and at one point I seriously didn't know where to be looking because it was too much beauty for 360˚. The park was a vortex of blinding sunshine, blue sky and quickly changing colour everywhere: blended pastels on a stark black and white mountainous landscape. Mountains in this low-lying sunlight tend to glow ethereally in the distance. It was an entrance into another dimension, an oasis of gorgeousness and light in a dark world. The entire Dawson area and Dempster highway up to the park was a snow storm, yet somehow magically as we entered the unique mountainous ecosystem of the park, everything cleared away and another planet lay before us, beside us, behind us. Again as we left the park, the snowstorm world resumed as if we had been gone six seconds, not six hours. But back to while we were inside the vortex.

That pink thing in the far distance, right, is a mountain peak.

I saw caribou - about a dozen or so stragglers from the recent massive migration through the park. They were at quite a distance but I could still see them walking along in groups of three, and I was both delighted by this and convinced that I now understand WHY they are considered such magical creatures: their funny legs seemed to glide over the ground where they walked, in an almost cartoonish way, as if they were floating whirligigs of caribou. Dan said it's because the ground is very spongy and sinky, and that's how they walk on it.   

<3 Tombstone Territorial Park, Yukon. Special thanks to Dan and Laurie Sokolowski for the amazing road trip through.

A likely story I found in a small shelter the park.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

rattling off stories of the land

Sunset/ beginning of evening twilight today, which eventually became a perfect vertical beam of gold light, shooting straight up into the sky.

I had the privilege of meeting with a wonderful woman today at the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Heritage Department, who helped me immensely in my work to locate bone stories connected to the local landscape. Jody Beaumont works as a Traditional Knowledge Specialist for the department, is passionate about traditional myth and storytelling, and was extremely generous in sharing materials from their archives: transcribed interviews, books that record various versions of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in myths, and even her own notes from presentations that she's given on First Nations myth and storytelling. I spent a couple of hours sitting in her office poring over the books and print-outs she piled on the table for me, and digging deep into what they contained. I learned some amazing things, magical things, and things that make such plain and simple sense, including time/space travel medicine using caribou leg sinew. The best story, however, was the one Jody told me herself, in her own words, about a place we could see right out the windows, over the Yukon River. She told me the story of how once there were shoulder bones strung on a line across the river that rattled a warning whenever anyone came down in a canoe. I've read a variety of versions now, tonight, of the same or similar, partial stories from the many photocopied documents and the book she lent me, but her version was the best one. Maybe, because it was delivered to me by being spoken aloud and likely because her version contains the most bones.

One of the most important things that I've come away with from today, is that for the part of my project where I reveal the osteobiographies that are connected with each 'bone' I create and abandon in the landscape, I must share the stories orally. I don't think that written text is appropriate in this case. Almost every bone story I've collected since coming to Dawson has been given to me through speech, not text. A metamorphosis happens to story when it is delivered in such a way: it takes a piece of the storyteller with it, on to its next listener. It has more meaning, is more alive and personal. It creates social adhesion, which is the essential economy/currency of a transient (or nomadic, or non-materialistic) society. Text is a fixed medium for the most part, and I believe that myth and legend should not be fixed.

One page of the first creation myth I ever wrote, in 1979.
Stories are better when someone embodies them. My son has told me that some of his most cherished childhood memories are of listening to the stories I read aloud to him, loving them much more than any story he read himself. When I was an elementary school kid (in Alberta), I was given the extracurricular task of reading stories aloud to kids in the younger grades. One of the first skills I gained through that early storytelling practice was how to keep the various characters' voices distinct from one another, and distinct from my own voice. One of the first written storytelling skills I learned in that same school, that impacted me most, was how to write a traditional creation myth, during a workshop with a visiting indigenous artist. She came back later and taught me how to create beaded stories by sewing seed beads to felted shapes.

In the tissue engineering world, when a (cell) culture is 'fixed', it is dead (killed) and preserved in harsh chemicals. These stories are not meant to be that. So, I will retell my collected bone stories in spoken voice, recorded as audio files and available on the final project website. I've been playing with audio editing since I arrived, recording local sounds/music, so it seems a natural progression for this work. Perhaps some of the audio tracks I've recorded so far during my time here will become the backdrop for the spoken narratives.

Never has research for a project been such fun (and refreshing after so much academic research) -- I've been reading stories all afternoon and evening, laughing to myself with the cleverness and audacity of some of them, and making notes. I've read multiple tellings of the same myths, by different elders in different settlements along the Yukon River -- each one is an adaptation. The story that I construct from these traditional narratives, my own adaptation, will be true to the traditional stories, and acknowledge the story as deriving from the Gwich'in and Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in (Yukon) first peoples. I don't intend to appropriate traditional knowledge, but to work with one bone story in particular, the one Jody told me herself (and which I have only given the very bare bones of to you here), and respect that this is the language of the land, and therefore the old way of mapping the land. The traditional stories are the way that the land is known on a subconscious level to the people who inhabit it. This land-based knowledge is critical to the psychogeography of this place now called Dawson City.

A page from a transcribed interview conducted by Jody Beaumont. She gave me this copy today, and this is another version of the same story she told me.

Project Overview

The project will respond to the local landscape, cultural history and mythology.
Utilizing locally sourced biomaterials such as animal intestine, I will construct artificial bones that mimic the natural biological process of osteogenesis. These faux artifacts will be built using textile structures as scaffolds for mineral growth. Following this process of ‘mock-ossification’, I will build text-based osteobiographies (narratives) for each object, referencing and mutating the existing stories, mythologies and histories of the Yukon.

This project reflects an interest in psychogeography (affective space) and how existing spaces can be altered through the intervention of uncanny objects abandoned in public. Those objects will be marked with identifying information that leads to a website containing semi-fictitious but almost entirely-believable ‘mutated narratives’ (a term coined by bioartist, Katherine Fargher) that offer alternate explanations for the way things are.

My research in tissue engineering informs the work in its biomimetic process: bones are over 70% hydroxylapatite crystal, formed on a partly-collagen matrix. By sculpting soft tissue and using various crystalline chemical solutions to grow hard mineral matter on the surface and insides of the structures, beautiful and unknown forms emerge. The chemicals I use and the biomaterials are naturally biodegradable and will be allowed to disintegrate into the environment, leaving nothing but their osteobiographical trace.