Introduction and interviews by Jody Chan.
As disability justice artists and organizers, what political work is uniquely possible through art? How do we cultivate intimacy, sustainability, and interdependence in that work? What does it mean to build our own disability justice traditions and lineages?
In this series of interviews, I had the privilege and honour of learning from three brilliant queer and trans BIPOC disability justice artists and movement workers (a term I learned from Leah Laskhmi Piepzna-Samarasinha in this interview, who in turn learned it from Stacey Milbern). Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Cyree Jarelle Johnson, and Thirza Cuthand — three artists whose work I have often turned to for care and guidance in my own artistic practice — weave a crip magic web of wisdom, vulnerability, and resistance.
“My work cannot be remembered or contextualized without those who will need it, love it, tear it to shreds, hate it, but need it all the same,” writes Cyree Jarelle Johnson. We share these interviews in the hope that they will sustain your disability justice dreams, your love, your survival, your resistance, in the ways that you need.
1. You’ve made videos, films, and even a video game that touch on madness, in relation to Queerness and Indigeneity. What are you working on right now, and how are madness and disability showing up in your work?
Right now I am working on a feature film script, madness isn’t specifically referenced in it although it has some magical/paranormal aspects to it. I’m also working on a webseries about going into space. That project is still being written but I was learning about madness and space travel and although no one has had to deal with a psych episode in space, there has been much discussion about what to do and how to prevent an episode. So far that seems to mean screening out people who have mental health disabilities. So I’m curious about mental health first aid in a long distance space mission. It’s also a webseries about Indigenous exploration, so it’s interesting. I’m still working on completing the bipolar video game, I want to get three more levels to it. I’m also working on a short about a medicine bundle which was in my family and which is still operating as a healing force which seems to come when needed. It helped my Great Great Grandfather Misatimwas survive a smallpox epidemic and being mortally wounded while leading the battle of Cutknife Hill. It also helped my Grandpa survive Spanish Flu when he was just a baby. It got buried with my Great Great Grandfather in an unmarked grave so that graverobbers wouldn’t steal it. But when I was having one of my first struggles with suicidal ideation as a preteen, my Uncle and Aunt were doctoring me and saw this bear cub roll into the room. The medicine bundle has a bear cub robe in it from my Great Great Great Grandfather’s pet cub. So it’s been this sort of healing energy that I think has helped our family survive some really difficult times, mostly relating to colonization. I think for Indigenous people, mental health crises are really indicative of the sickness of living with oppression. There aren’t any safe spaces for us, except maybe when we are in ceremony with each other. Even in hospitals I’ve experienced racism directed towards me from not only patients but also staff. So I believe in my family’s spiritual practices. I don’t really care if the medical world thinks that is magical thinking, I think there is magic in the world.
2. You’re currently being featured in the Whitney Biennial (congrats!). How is all of that feeling for you, and how are you thinking right now about the ethics and challenges of navigating powerful art institutions like the Whitney?
It’s been really unusual! I think in a lot of ways I expected more to change than what actually happened. It’s hard to say the ramifications of it since my work screens in late September there, at the end of the Biennial. So critics haven’t had a chance to tear it apart and say I suck yet. I thought I would get more attention in Canada for being in the Whitney but honestly not much has changed. I think ethically being in the Whitney Biennial this year has been hard because there is a war profiteer on the Board, so there has been a lot of political agitation to try and get him to resign. But the only person who can make that decision is him, and he’s not going anywhere. I’ve found the whole situation has really cast a shadow on the artists chosen for the biennial this year because we’re seen sort of as sell outs or something for not pulling our work en masse. A lot of the artists are emerging though, or just not very well known, so it’s way riskier for us to make that kind of move. I think a lot of people know it could be a career killer and make us get blacklisted if we decided to act in that way. Most large galleries are getting funds from something shady. It’s just really visible this year with the Whitney. I’m still trying to make it known that I don’t support blood money in the arts. But I’m also a really marginalized artist and I feel my voice isn’t heard as easily as others.
3. What is the role of community in your art-making, and how would you define “community”?
I started my practice being really individualistic. Honestly I think that had a lot to do with my social anxiety. I performed, shot, edited my work all by myself with whatever tools I had available. But as time has gone on I have become more accustomed to asking for help. I’ve been doing these 2 Spirit videos with other people in the community and they have been really fun. I’ve also started working with crews again for the first time since film school. It’s been really a relief to see a group of people work to achieve my vision for a piece. I can’t always afford to hire people, but when I can it’s been really lovely.
4. In your blog, you’ve talked about calling your film work “experimental” because you don’t know what other genre to put them in. What elements of your work do you consider experimental, and how does genre (or lack of it) inform the creative choices you make?
I think when I was first asked to categorize my films in a distribution spec form, I put down experimental and narrative because I just didn’t know which to pick, and it stuck. Most of them are very narrative driven but still use experimental and performance references to tell the story. My early work was usually made in my home with props and toys and so forth. And now I’ve become really enamoured of green screen. In some ways I love the campy artificial quality of green screen, and in other ways I just love that you can put someone anywhere with it, on any background. Sometimes I like picking some really annoying part of filmmaking and going overboard with it to make something weird and good. I think the experimental parts of my films are just working with the limitations I have, mostly budgetary limitations. Like using my body as a performance site. I really love monologues. I’ve been dabbling in dialogue a bit more. I think the genres I’m interested in really take from pop culture. I like horror, sci fi, fantasy and fairytales. I love porn too but I just don’t have enough sex in my life to feel like it’s something I could make honest work about.
5. Your work often makes use of comedy and laughter as a political tool to tell nuanced and loving stories about your community. What do you think is the role of humour in art and activism?
I think humour is very incisive. Like, I think it opens a door for people to enter political and emotional landscapes of people who are different from them. It’s also medicine for people from my community. One time I got beat up when I was a teenager, and I don’t know, I guess I just needed to heal because I kept making jokes afterwards while we waited for cops to show up. The cops never showed, and it still took a few months for the PTSD to go away from that assault. But I think it’s common for Indigenous people to use dark humour to grapple with some of the violence enacted on us and on our communities and in our communities. It gives you control again in a way. I think also some humour is just really gentle and loving and bonding. Plains Crees are very funny people. If you hang out with a group of us it’s not uncommon to have side splitting belly aching fits of laughter.
6. Who do you turn to as elders or mentors in this work? Who do you consider to be part of your disability justice and/or artistic lineage?
I think I mostly turn to other friends, I grew up in the art community because my Mother (Ruth Cuthand) and my Father (Edward Poitras) are both well respected artists so they took me to shows and introduced me to other artists and we’d drop into their friends studios to visit when I was a kid. So I’m really a product of the Saskatchewan Indigenous art community. For mentors I met people like Maureen Bradley who taught me how to make my first video, and Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Milan, and Dana Claxton, whose work I really loved and connected with. I’ve been fortunate that most video artists I’ve admired I’ve been able to form friendships with. I also just went to see a lot of independent film as a youth, mostly art house stuff by people like Todd Haynes and other Americans. I find them to be influences more than mentors though, since I’ve never had a conversation with those filmmakers.
7. How do you prioritize sustainability and interdependence in your art and organizing?
I remember there was one period after a very traumatic hospitalization when I was young when I couldn’t produce work. It was at least two or three years long. I remember just feeling very numb and feeling this sort of horror at being blocked creatively. Since then I’ve just been willing to follow my instincts more and always have a few projects rolling around in my head. I’ve also been involved with Toronto Queer Film Festival here in Toronto where I’ve helped lead a workshop to teach new Indigiqueer filmmakers how to make videos at Trinity Square Video. I think it’s an ongoing process of helping emerging artists and also nurturing my own ideas by always being curious about the world, what is going on, the possibilities. I’m making more of a point to take in other’s work, going to galleries, screenings, reading books, watching television. I used to hate television but I’ve been realizing some fascinating storytelling is coming out of television right now. It’s really important for my creative process to also watch how other works are made. And music is a big part of my life, it always has been. I basically listen to music all day. I think short films and songs have a lot of common ground. Drawing links between all of these things becomes really heightened when I am having a manic episode, but even in a more stable time I have these threads between mediums that I notice. That’s really nice.
Thirza Jean Cuthand (b. 1978 Regina SK) makes short experimental videos and films about sexuality, madness, Queer identity, love, and Indigeneity, which have screened in festivals and galleries internationally. She completed her BFA majoring in Film/Video at Emily Carr University of Art and Design in 2005, and her MA in Media Production at Ryerson University in 2015. She has performed at Live At The End Of The Century in Vancouver, Performatorium in Regina, and 7a*11d in Toronto. She is a Whitney Biennial 2019 artist. She is Plains Cree/Scots, a member of Little Pine First Nation, and resides in Toronto, Canada.