Rachel Zolf in San Francisco

Yesterday afternoon at ATA on Valencia at 21st in San Francisco, SMALL PRESS TRAFFIC presented RACHEL ZOLF with special guests  SIRAMA BAJO, DAVID BUUCK and ERIKA STAITI.  The afternoon included a film, reading, and polyvocal performance from Janey’s Arcadia (Coach House, 2014), "an aversive, conversive reckoning with the ongoing errors of Canadian settler-colonialism."

Here's how Coach House describes Janey's Arcadia:

Janey's Arcadia restages Canada's colonial appropriations in a carnivalesque cacophony of accented speech, weather, violence, foliage and carnality. Rachel Zolf assembles a pirate score of glitch-ridden settler narratives, primarily from Manitoba. Clashing voices squall across time, flashing pornographic signs that the colonial catastrophe continues with each brutal scrubbing of Indigenous knowledges and settler responsibility. Unsettling the Arcadian promise of a new pure home, this poetry asks whose bodies are consumed as fuel, and whose glitched subjectivities dirty up received narratives of supremacy and vanishing. Subversive, aversive, conversive, Janey's Arcadia propels the reader toward necessary ethical encounter.

In her introduction, Samantha Giles, at Rachel's request, discussed her own background which includes Chickasaw, an ancestry cloaked in silence within the history of Giles' family. This is something a number of us can attest too. My family's Mic'mac ancestry was, until my maternal grandmother's death, a rumored but tabooed subject. I bring this up as Zolf's work engages with questions of erasure, misrecognition, denials and repressions, personal, communal, social, political. How to excavate these histories and in what languages articulated by what subjects are questions at the heart of her project. Janey's Arcadia followed Zolf's work on Neighbor Procedure and her visit to Israel and Palestine.

Erika Staiti and Rachel Zolf

Zolf's event began with her reading from her book, accompanied by David Buuck, who worked the overhead projector, displaying multiple, palimpsested layers from a variety of texts and images, including the one on the book's cover.  This sliding performance of layered images/texts/words accompanied Zolf's resonant, guttural, lyrical, sonically textured languages, which include among others, Cree, French, Gaelic, Scot's English, Red River twang, and the linguistic cacophony created by "errors of recognition" within the Optical Character Recognition software (OCR) Zolf used for obtaining digital copies of historical documents and texts.

Rachel then invited the audience to have a discussion. She shared some of her process, asked us if we felt as if we were settlers and wondered what feelings were evoked by the work. This last question, for me, proved provocative as there was so much to take-in in the rich performance. I found myself sonically pleasured, and I supposed troubled, as well as interested by the contextual resonance of images and text moving on the screen. For example, at one point an image of an 1886 pamphlet entitled "What Women Say of the Canadian Northwest" was juxtaposed/overlaid with a text that included a sentence that read something like, "if any woman should be so audacious...the board....will grind her to dust....!). Where affect is in the midst of so much going on is difficult to pinpoint. There's a great deal to explore here--where affect is in a piece, how it is evoked, mobilized, beyond stock strategies and with complexity, how and when it is experienced (immediately, upon solitary reading, belatedly, etc.,)  by an audience member or reader--these are all engaging questions. What form has to do with all of this is also live. Zolf shared her own earlier engagement with formalism in the tradition of Russian formalism and her current interest in mobilizing affect.

Sirama Bajo and Erika Staiti

This discussion was followed by the showing of a short film Zolf has worked on with a number of collaborators. The film includes footage marked with the Canadian National Film Board's (NFB) watermark and includes the running time log or signature. The footage includes this material because Zolf appropriated it as it was too expensive to purchase the rights. Rachel explained how she likes having these features as part of the film since they markedly declare who owns the gaze. After the film, we moved outside onto the sidewalk on Valencia for a reading which included a polyvocal performance of the poem and the names of indigenous women murdered in Canada. Here Zolf was joined by Erika Staiti, David Buuck, and Sirama Bajo. Passersby stopped to listen, walked through the performance, pulled their BMWs out of the adjacent parking spot. The twilight was lit by the many upscale neon lights to be found on Valencia these days. The performers' voices struggled against the ambient sound of urban night life as the humid day began to unwind. Bajo closed the event with an indigenous song, her beautiful voice rising powerfully above the street sounds around her.  

David Buuck, Sirama Bajo and Rachel Zolf

If you weren't there, that's too bad. Zolf gave us much to think about and feel; we had the chance to talk together, an opportunity always built on the foundation of provocations and risk, and in this case, exhilaration.