Issue 002  |  Spring 2021 | Profile


  the banana packer is edible and the gas masks are kinky 



The Materialist Politics of Fetish and Humor in Thirza Cuthand’s DIY Videoworks
by Razan Al-Salah





Less Lethal Fetishes (2019). Film still courtesy of filmmaker Thirza Cuthand.




Hilarious, kinky, and radically rooted in the banal, Thirza Cuthand’s DIY videos unravel the messiness of identity between the personal and the political, the formal and the material. In the last scene of Boi Oh Boi (2012), Cuthand, playing and being herself, removes her banana packer and eats it. Much like the banana, her humor and kink are always anchored in a material condition. Cuthand’s DIY aesthetic, ethic, and politic both complicate and render banal her identity to “becom[e] something completely different than man or woman. Owning my curves, my hardness, softness, and gentleness; and yes, even for me, that fierceness. I feel like a boi sometimes but not enough to cross that expanse from this body to that body. This body has become home, although, in terms of gender identity, I do feel like a nomad.”

Cuthand’s aesthetic emerges from her beginnings in the DIY movement of the mid-’90s. Still, it extends beyond the decade’s formalist visual style. Her work embodies a political and ethical means of producing radical films untethered to a financial patron. In other words, it’s a “poor image”1 that holds the film’s ethics and politics in the means of low-budget production.

“I didn’t originally intend to be an experimental filmmaker,” Cuthand once explained.2 “My work is largely dealing in a DIY aesthetic due to the very real experience of normally living in poverty. Experimental works are less costly for me to produce. If my actors are all pipe cleaner dolls, or if I am jumping around performing in a baby doll dress, or if I am delivering a lecture in front of a green screen with some footage of dandelions behind me, crucial messages can still be conveyed humorously and poignantly without the need for things like grants or patrons.”

In films that do feature a cast, Cuthand’s poor image lends itself to a collaborative making process with nonactor friends and community members. Cuthand radicalizes her community relationships by setting them up within a fictive narrative. Her filmmaking process is a social experiment of a possible elsewhere, here.



  This body has become home, although, in terms of gender identity, I do feel like a nomad.


In The Longform Lesbian Census (2017) Cuthand takes a rudimentary colonial government tool for population control and subverts it by using the census to complicate the “lesbian demographic.” Cuthand reappropriates the power of the census taker to ask very intrusive, funny, and kinky questions.

“I applied for this job to be a census taker and I didn’t get it,” Cuthand tells me. “It was just this really long process, you had to take all these tests. And if you got the job, you had to prove you had a filing cabinet that would lock and a landline. Everything I learned from applying to that job kind of made me want to do this lesbian census.”

So she started thinking: “It was kind of a joke between me and my friend Riki [co-creator of the video]: what if there was a lesbian longform census? And then we thought we would actually ask our friends all these invasive questions...They didn’t have to tell the truth, but most of them told the truth. When we shot it, we interviewed two couples together. There were these relationship issues that would show up...I’m not usually that kind of person that inquires that directly about somebody’s life, love life, relationships. It was a really interesting experience of community trust and community building. My favorite part that actually made it into the film was when one of them was talking about being a switch, and her partner was like, ‘Oh, are you?!’”



2 Spirit Dream Catcher Dot Com (2017). Film still courtesy of filmmaker Thirza Cuthand.

Cuthand’s filmmaking as relation making is remediated into the digital in 2 Spirit Dreamcatcher Dot Com (2017). In this intimate film, she advertises a two-spirit dating site for “snagging and shacking up” that includes recommendations for nearby pipeline protests that you can take your date to. Collaborating with two-spirit friends, Cuthand reimagines a digital infrastructure as a safe space for seducing and organizing.

“I use fantasy in a lot of films, and there’s this kind of Thirza Cuthand mythology that’s been created over the years that involves these more idealized two-spirit communities,” she says. “I think about that as this sort of parallel fictional universe that’s populated by all of these characters. There’s always that thing that performance artists and actors have...where people try to figure out if your public persona is your on-screen persona and they try to reconcile those. Are you that person in the video? Are you acting or is that really you? It’s gotten to this point where I don’t know anymore! I know sometimes I’m doing a role, but in some ways the roles are all me.”

Through this inseparable relation between narrator and character, cast and community, making and being in the world, Cuthand unsettles her authorial power as an artist separate from her art. In Less Lethal Fetishes (2019), part of her NDN Survival Trilogy, she grapples with the moment when her work is pushed into the international art market. She wrestles with the complicity of art world funding that is often sourced from global companies profiting from resource extraction and international conflicts. The film begins and ends describing her fetish for gas masks, a gesture that becomes loaded the moment her work is curated into the Whitney Biennial in 2019. (That year activists ramped up their actions against a Whitney board member with ties to a tear gas manufacturing company.3 Their products have been used to suppress protests in Palestine, Ferguson, and Standing Rock.)  



 
Reclamation (2018). Film still courtesy of filmmaker Thirza Cuthand.


Cuthand blurs the use of the gas mask—between an object of kink and survival—to subvert the cooptation of her work by the biennial. She problematizes the pressure being deflected from those in power to the participating artists. She imagines different ways she can respond as an artist, such as infiltrating the biennial with an additional video. As she explains in the film: “In my video I was going to have people from these different communities say something meaningful and profound while wearing this . . . gas mask. It was going to be a smart, incisive piece that I would just slip into the biennial with my other two videos that were screening. So that was the plan, but it never happened. I didn’t know what I wanted these people to say. I felt weird about asking random friends to be in my video just because they fit certain demographics. But I kept the gas mask.”

In Extractions (2019), the second film in the NDN Survival Trilogy, Cuthand maps the seemingly inescapable ubiquity of extractive capitalism. Beautiful found images of explosive mining are shot in high-definition and intercut with shaky POV footage of a different kind of mining: eggs being extracted from Cuthand’s body. She narrates her fear of raising a child in her home province, Saskatchewan, where children are also systematically extracted from their Indigenous communities in the name of “care.” The shaky poor image of Cuthand’s everyday resistance breaks with the spectacle of an apocalyptic imaginary that separates the future from the present: a colonial fragmentation of time that renders the apocalypse inevitable and seals Indigenous peoples—and colonialism—into the past. “People say the apocalypse already came and happened for Indigenous people and that we are the survivors,” she says in the film.


Cuthand blurs the use of the gas mask—between an object of kink and survival—to subvert the cooptation of her work by the biennial.




Cuthand’s futurity does not require a multimillion-dollar CGI dystopic utopia. Throughout the NDN Survival Trilogy, the future is filmed in the present. Reclamation (2018), the third film, imagines Indigenous people repairing and reviving a post-apocalyptic earth after the settlers escaped to conquer another New World on Mars. Rooted in community and land-based creative practices, Cuthand’s material aesthetics carry her (non)fiction comic narrative into a collaborative process. Her nonactor cowriters, Lacey, Cherish, and Elwood, are longtime friends. “I gave them a sheet of paper that explained this future that I was envisioning, where white people were on Mars and Indigenous people were reclaiming the land and building their communities back up again,” she says. “I asked them the same kind of questions, and they kind of made it up from there. The visuals were just shots from different places around Canada. It’s interesting because, yeah, it was about the future—but there are no robots, right! But rather going back to when things were cleaner, better, and more wholesome. Indigenous revival.”


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Razan Al-Salah is an artist and filmmaker investigating the material aesthetics of dis/appearance of places and people in colonial image worlds, breaking these thresholds of view into elsewheres here, where colonialism no longer makes sense. Her work has shown in community-based and international galleries and film festivals. She teaches at Concordia University in Tiohtiá:ke/Montreal.

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FOOTNOTES

1. Hito Steyerl, “In Defense of the Poor Image,” in The Wretched of the Screen (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2012), 39.  

2. Indigenous Art Awards Laureates: Thirza Cuthand, The Hnatyshyn Foundation, https://www.rjhf.com/programmes/prixenartautochtone/2017/CUTHAND-THIRZA.php.

3. Former Whitney board member Warren Kanders was a majority owner and CEO of Safariland.