On Omission | Lilian Mengesha and Sky Hopinka

An interview between Lilian (Lily) Mengesha and Sky Hopinka, January 9, 2019

Dislocation Blues (2017) is a visual encounter with Standing Rock, on view at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts (September 21–December 16, 2018).

An incomplete and imperfect portrait of reflections from Standing Rock. Cleo Keahna recounts his experiences entering, being at, and leaving the camp and the difficulties and the reluctance in looking back with a clear and critical eye. Terry Running Wild describes what his camp is like, and what he hopes it will become.
— Sky Hopinka, artist's website

Mengesha: For this special issue on “Performing Refusal/Refusing to Perform,” [Lakshmi and I] are curating essays about refusing to engage with a particular form of liberal politics that centers on inclusion and assimilation and getting people to be under a kind of universal marker. So, a lot of the essays are thinking about forms of omission or imperceptibility or not being outright about one’s resistance or one’s decision to not be a part of a community. We’ve been really inspired by Audra Simpson’s work, and in her book Mohawk Interruptus she opens with the example of how the Mohawk lacrosse team refused to use the settler colony’s passports to leave the country and so they were refused at the border. I am struck by the power of those moments of refusing the state or refusing forms of recognition that might place a subject within a particular subjugated category. I kept returning to your piece, Dislocation Blues, because of your decision to omit intimate details around organizing, particularly Cleo’s discussion of what he wouldn’t detail about Standing Rock. To clarify, I don’t want or need to know what was omitted as it wasn’t for me, I am curious about your editing choices and how you came to that decision.

Let’s start with the title. Why Dislocation Blues?

Hopinka: I think the title is the easiest thing for me to start with. The title came about around my second trip back, when I just really became aware of how it embodied a lot of these dislocated feelings that I had felt most of my life, but just really compounded. It was just so intense going from the world of Milwaukee where the community was predominately white, to going to Standing Rock where everyone is Native, then going back again, and being on the highway. The highway being also a non-place, a liminal place, in-between these two worlds. And I just felt like I had no sense of locating myself within any of these worlds. That’s pretty much where the title came from. And this sense of the blues too where, you’re kind of down, you’re kind of out, but still there’s a certain sort of resistance to that melancholy, I suppose. But just the fact of trying to be persistent in it and trying to search for a way to exist despite the difficulty of it.

Mengesha: Did you feel melancholy when you were there? Or was it the back and forth that produced it?

Hopinka: Mostly the back and forth, where I had time to reflect. It’s a ten-hour drive from Milwaukee to Standing Rock. And I do a lot of thinking on the road. I spend a lot of time on the road, and I have a lot of interests on the road as a place and as a space for community, especially with my background in pow-wows and pow-wow culture where it’s like going from weekend to weekend to weekend, from pow-wow to pow-wow to pow-wow, and so the road becomes something more.

Mengesha: How did you end up interviewing Cleo?

Hopinka: I had known Cleo for about two years before that. He was in a book trailer that I did for the poet Adrian C. Louis, and that’s how I met him. He was living up in northern Wisconsin. We had kept in touch with social media and stuff, and I had seen that he was going there. Our times never lined up. My first trip ended when he was getting there, and vice versa, back and forth. One of the first things that I was drawn to with Cleo was just his energy and his articulation and his ability to just get to the heart of anything.

Mengesha: Cleo describes dreaming in the camp, and having a two-spirit community for the first time. And I’m sure that happened for a lot of people, it was one of the biggest contemporary mass gatherings of pan Native identified folks, and Native nations. So that part where the film goes black, and Cleo says, “you know but I wouldn’t share that with anybody who’s not Native or not part of a resistance movement.” Did that omission come up in the editing process?

Hopinka: I did the interview with Cleo two or three months after my last time at Standing Rock, it was in late February. Up to that point, probably a week before we did the interview, I hadn’t really looked at the footage at all. I was supposed to, I had an edit due mid-March for a screening and I don’t know I just really didn’t want to look at the footage. It was just really hard. And I had done one interview at the camp, and I was like I don’t know if I have enough, I don’t know what I have. I got all through the footage and all through the B-roll and made an edit around that, I was not quite sure what the story should be or how I should engage with it.

Mengesha: By that time the camp had started to clear, right around when the inauguration happened.

Hopinka: Yeah totally, it was over. Yeah, even just like the good things and the bad things, those are always hard. And I knew that I wanted to talk to Cleo or do an interview with Cleo for a while and I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to ask him. But eventually the idea that was just kicking around my head was why not talk about how difficult it is to talk about this stuff. I mean I knew from the beginning that I didn’t want to do something that would be trying to tell the Standing Rock story. And so then it became about trying to make more of an effort to make space to talk about talking about things. We began the interview talking about how did he get there, what made him want to go, and then eventually, just the foundational sort of stuff, and then he was telling me a large part of his story. And really halfway through we got to the point where we were talking about: who do we talk to this about? How do we be critical about this when there’s this fear of undermining a movement or undermining our community? And who we talk to and who to feel safe with? And this uncertainty that points to a place of not having either the language or the space to talk about it.

Mengesha: So when you say talking about things: its talking about how it’s going to be perceived or put into the world? Or talking about the choices that you make to either include it or not include it, or just you include talking?

Hopinka: I mean all of that. How do we be critical of this thing that happens? How do we criticize? Not criticize in the way of talking shit or whatever, but be critical toward building on what had happened when nothing like that had happened before, at least in the United States. And what does it mean to have a model in practice for decolonization? What worked, what didn’t work? And how it’s OK to not have this unified front of trying to protect everything and save everything. The polemics even within the camps there were such that there’s a handful of camps, six or seven camps, and each one had their own idea of success and failure. And sometimes what was successful for one camp was a failure for another. And that’s a stark difference even amongst this group of 10,000 people. And so everyone had their own agenda or had their own idea about what it means to succeed and to fail. That’s a huge schism even just psychologically and how do you participate in this?

Mengesha: So in your filmmaking practice, I was reading some of your other work where you’ve talked about your interest in privacy and keeping private Ho-chunk stories or Native. How do you see film as a mode to do that for you when it is often read as visual and consumptive form? Versus say, painting or poetry, or other artistic formats. And even examples of how this has come up in the past—you had a great comment about how the western academy has historically worked to make public indigenous knowledge when it’s not a public practice. What draws you to video, or to film?

Hopinka: I think it’s more so than writing or painting or 2D art, it would probably be the time-based elements around it. Arguably reading is a time-based medium itself, but the amount of space that is then dictated by the maker to then create a beginning and middle and end, and make that a space for exploring different modes of narrative or modes of story, whether they’re circular or non-linear, etc. There’s a different way to approach how an audience engages that is under the control of the maker. That in itself is a reclamation of the ownership of the story. For me especially, what I was really drawn to early on when I first encountered experimental film was the durational aspect of it. Things like Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives or Tropical Malady. Or even any other work that deals with duration in such a way that’s dealing with culture or dealing with space and exploration and quietude. I think that those are really exciting and really profound in how it’s a control of the story. I really resist—well I don’t even think I actively resist that much, I follow: what does this mean for me and how can I just put it in there and not worry about contextualizing it. So it feels really natural in that sense, I just really try to foster the natural qualities of those choices and feel comfortable with them without having to overly contextualize. And that’s a beginning point but over the course of an edit, or over the course of finishing a video I may go through twenty different edits, and each time those conversations or questions become more complicated or become more nuanced, I become more deliberate around what is shown or what’s not shown. And it’s often for me, I think about the space where there’s seemingly nothing, how it’s about what isn’t there, the space that is created around the absence of information becomes occupied by unexplainable understanding. And moving image feels like the medium for me to do that, and it’s how my brain works too .

Mengesha: You’re right, film can do that because to participate in film, at least as an audience member, you have to sit with it and witness it. I’ve been thinking a lot about land versus landscape, and as I was reading about your work a lot of people talk about how you’re so interested in landscape. But I actually think you’re interested in land, and I’m thinking about it through an indigenous studies lens where the land is alive and important and a living creature, and it’s with us. As you were talking about driving, and moving across land, yes of course landscape is part of it but its also this living, breathing being. So I’m curious: what does land mean to you? And what does land mean, versus landscape, in your filming process?

Hopinka: That’s really nice, I hadn’t thought about that before. I mean I feel like I have difficulty talking about landscape or engaging with certain tenants of that tradition—I don’t know how people engage with landscape or the idea of it, and I don’t really know why.

Mengesha: I get reminded of landscape art as a particularly colonial form in the Americas. The Romantic poets and landscape painters, these white men came in to master the scenery and basically erase the indigenous people out of the landscape. At least for me that’s what bothers me about the landscape because it so clearly has this connotation. Not to say that landscape isn’t represented in other ways, but for me that’s what comes to mind when I think about that particular history.

Hopinka: I think the first things I started taking pictures of was landscapes, or pictures of the land that I’m on as I’m walking through these places. So it became more about markers of memory than about trying to capture the essence of a place, I suppose. I mean even the literature/theory that I’ve been drawn to has been more about spaces and I suppose lands in a similar sort of way. Like the theory of landscapes by Yuriko Furuhata, and the Kengo Kuma text, Anti Objects, about how to utilize space, even the structures that inhabit them.

Mengesha: Memories are marked in the land for you, and that’s why you’re filming landscapes or a visual outside, where you started.

Hopinka: It’s markers of my own memory or markers of my own presence. Very much like a snapshot, I suppose. And what does that mean to take a picture that demarcates a place at a point in time that is no longer there anymore? And even how one of my main motivations for editing colors the way that I do, with an oversaturated quality to them, is that I’m trying to make them as I remember them. I guess for me landscape always feels somewhat flat, and what it means is just you set up a camera, you shoot a landscape, and that’s where it begins and where it ends. But, that is what I’m doing as I’m shooting each of these places, often without any idea where they’ll line up. And so shooting them in the moment becomes about enjoying the pleasure of shooting something that’s beautiful, or feels like it’s something that I want to record. But then it’s how are those images then complicated in edits against each other and alongside any other information that is present in a video where it really comes to exist on its own, amongst others, through the context it’s given.

Mengesha: That was something about Dislocation Blues that was just so stunning, were these long still shots. In the opening shot, there’s a body sitting of the edge and then just filming as the sun is setting. And you feel this pulsing, emanating from the visual. And it could be like a photograph but then you see moments of the person’s breath floating through the air.

Hopinka: Yeah that was actually the morning of my first or second day there. I had gotten up and wanted to go shoot something because the sun was coming out and went to the top of Media Hill and sat behind this person and shot. So, I’m always going to remember that as an introduction into the space. Someone by themselves, on their phone, you know?

Mengesha: There was a moment too when Cleo was talking about, this has to do with land, but he was saying you know there are no roads here, there’s no orderly way of organizing space. Could you talk a little bit about navigation around Standing Rock?

Hopinka: I feel like I don’t even know. It was demarcated by little camps, and I mean the roads would change every time that I went. And I’m sure they changed a lot, just based on where people would put up tents or where people would set up camp, or how little camps would grow larger and larger. And so, it was constantly in flux and constantly meeting the needs of people that were coming there to live and to participate.

Mengesha: Was it challenging to film that as you were moving through the space?

Hopinka: I think the challenge came with an uncertainty about… well when I was going there for the first time, it was like “oh yeah walk around the camp and shoot the community and shoot the people” and as soon as I got there it was like, “oh wait no, these are people’s homes.” How can I do that? Probably more shoot than any I felt confronted with internalized approaches to documentary filmmaking and my own way of navigating the world as an Indigenous person come head to head. It was pretty easy to just be like, well I’m not going to shoot, I’m just going to create some distance. But just having that be exemplified by the documentary crews that were there was really jarring.

Mengesha: Were you frustrated by them? There were also so many journalists there too, yes?

Hopinka: Yeah, it was frustrating in the fact that this was just another story to them. Or, not everyone, but for the most part people who came in for the weekend, or just when things got really violent, and were just like “yeah where’s the action?” And that felt kind of gross. Not everyone was like that, people were just trying to do their best to tell stories, but also being confronted with the challenges of the boundaries that the community would put up. Like, you can’t film this ceremony or you can’t film this place, but then journalists and documentarians being frustrated by that.

Mengesha: I suppose that is the point of journalism and even documentary filmmaking, it’s all about the access, the consumption. And here is a radical move to say this is a boundary, that’s not something we’re going to share, that’s not for the public eye.

Hopinka: I mean about those boundaries, there is a certain objectivity that is expected. Especially with this video, too, where I take more of a traditional approach to it, with talking head interviews. I don’t do a lot of video manipulation like I do in my other videos, so it looks more like a conventional documentary. But then once you start looking at all of the joints and the cracks you see that it’s not really following that model. Where it feels more subversive in that sense. What is it about really? It’s about two people wondering where they fit in.

Mengesha: Yes, Cleo and Terry’s stories were so rich and it was so refreshing to have such a different perspective on Standing Rock than all the violence that was being documented, and no one wanted to talk about the kind of community building that was happening, or the lifegiving world that was created.

Do you think of refusal or do you think about non-engagement with narratives of representation? I know you’ve talked about it elsewhere and I don’t want to have you repeat too much of what you’ve already said, but what does that mean to you when I say something like “refusal” or “refusal to do the work of representation.”

Because you’ve talked about being indigenous and being a filmmaker, and then going to Standing Rock and deciding not to film, and then deciding to film. But even the ways that you decided to film were more, again, time-based: these long shots of, seems like you were still, and then people were just moving or just being.

Hopinka: I’ve been thinking about this question a lot of what am I reacting against and refusing, and what am I embracing, and who is this for? Who are these films for? What sort of way do I fit into that? I’m not actively trying to be a spokesperson for Ho-Chunk people or for Indigenous people or Indigenous filmmakers or to present what I am up to or interested in for the consumption or a non-indigenous, or just for a white audience. I try to avoid definitions by attrition, it’s like we’re not this we’re not that so then what is the alternative? Well, we’re this, I’m this, my family is this, this is what we believe in, and that becomes more of a mode that I feel like is healthier for me mentally to engage in. Because growing up with a lot of Native art, culture, film, poetry, whatever, a lot of it is, rightfully so, justifiably so, based around “we’re not this” and it’s about that resistance to erasure, resistance to assimilation, resistance to genocide. And I don’t know if this is a point of privilege, or just a generation that I’m living in or grew up in, but there is a resistance to those definitions of who we are by who we’re not. And so for me my audience is a Native audience, the audience that the work is intended for is a native audience to then think about what our culture can look like beyond the definitions of who we’re not. And what sort of things can we work towards, within the conversations with ourselves, without having to go through the white gatekeeper of media production. And I made all of these films without much support. I fund them myself, I have a camera. My Milwaukee community all chipped in and gave me some money to go to Standing Rock. There’s a certain freedom in that and there’s also privilege, but I’ve also worked my ass off saving up for cameras, and saving up for recorders and microphones. I definitely recognize the privilege in that, or just the fact that I have been in positions to make work on my own terms. How can I bring all this together?

Mengesha: You did in some ways, you’ve named it as a practice of attrition.

Hopinka: Yeah, it’s just how can it be generative? I’m refusing certain parts of the pressures put on us as Indigenous people to represent ourselves in that role. But then I also don’t view myself as being, you know, “this is the one fight.” Who are the other people doing the same thing, or having the same conversations? Who may not look at it the same way that I do but are part of a broader community of trying to then figure out what it means to be Indigenous in the twenty-first century.

Mengesha: Absolutely. How have other Indigenous folks or people responded to Dislocation Blues?

Hopinka: Generally positively. It’s opened up a lot of interesting conversations about Standing Rock, about representation, about what it means to be there and to live there, and bigger questions about who didn’t go, and why didn’t they go? All these different other little nuances about any sort of mainstream movement that gets a lot of attention. And it’s hard for me to gauge too, just the people that I talk to about it are the ones that want to talk to me about it. So often people that don’t like stuff don’t come up and tell you that. But I hope that they do, if anything it’s about having a conversation around these thoughts that I brought up. And I’ve had interesting conversations around them. And for the most part, like I said, the people that have come up and told me things, they get what the film is about. And it’s usually white audiences that are like “this doesn’t make any sense!” “Where’s the hero?” “You’re supposed to try to get me to jump on board with this movement and I feel nothing!” Just telling me how to make a movie.

Mengesha: And that’s not your job. All of these people are on board to protect the water.

Hopinka: So yeah, that’s where my refusal comes. Refusing the desires of a white audience. And what they want to see from Natives making film.

Mengesha: Thank you for your time Sky, this was wonderful.

Notes on Contributors

Sky Hopinka (Ho-Chunk/Pechanga) was born and raised in Ferndale, Washington and spent a number of years in Palm Springs and Riverside, California, Portland, Oregon, Milwaukee, WI, and is currently based out of Cambridge, Massachusetts.  In Portland he studied and taught chinuk wawa, a language indigenous to the Lower Columbia River Basin. His video work centers around personal positions of Indigenous homeland and landscape, designs of language as containers of culture, and the play between the known and the unknowable.  He received his BA from Portland State University in Liberal Arts and his MFA in Film, Video, Animation, and New Genres from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He is currently a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University and Sundance Art of Nonfiction Fellow for 2019.
His work has played at various festivals including ImagineNATIVE Media + Arts Festival, Images, Wavelengths, Ann Arbor Film Festival, Sundance, Antimatter, Chicago Underground Film Festival, FLEXfest, and Projections.  His work was a part of the 2016 Wisconsin Triennial and the 2017 Whitney Biennial.  He was awarded jury prizes at the Onion City Film Festival, the More with Less Award at the 2016 Images Festival, the Tom Berman Award for Most Promising Filmmaker at the 54th Ann Arbor Film Festival, the New Cinema Award at the Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival and the Mary L. Nohl Fund Fellowship for Individual Artists in the Emerging artist category for 2018.

Lilian (Lily) Mengesha is the Fletcher Foundation Assistant Professor of Dramatic Literature in the department of Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies at Tufts University. Her research focuses on contemporary Indigenous performances, gender and sexuality studies and affect theory. She is co-editor of the 2019 special issue of Women and Performance “Performing Refusal/Refusing to Perform.” Her writing has appeared in e-misférica, The Canadian Theatre Review and The Drama Review.

Women & Performance