Canadian video in trans exhibit pushes new boundaries for world’s oldest gay museum

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In her film, Canadian artist Jess MacCormack exposes the “other” Canada, a world of so-called starlight tours that some aboriginal individuals endure.

Called “Where we were not; Feeling Reserved, Alexus’ Story,” the piece is part of the groundbreaking multimedia exhibition that explores trans lives at Berlin’s Schwules Museum*, the world’s first gay museum.

“Canadian identity is wrapped in a nostalgia for a time that never existed,” MacCormack told Yahoo Canada News. “As a nation, we ignore this dark stuff. For people like me and [Alexus, who is in the video] we live in the ‘other’ Canada.”

The seven-minute piece uses the recounting of a starlight tour by Saskatoon police by Alexus Young — a gender-nonconforming, two-spirited indigenous woman. These tours translate to police picking up indigenous individuals, often taking their shoes and coats, and dumping them outside of town in the dead of winter.

“It’s not just Saskatchewan. It happens across the country,” noted MacCormack, who is Caucasian and grew up in Vancouver. The artist is now based out of Montreal. “It still keeps happening.”

In 1990, the notion of starlight tours got national attention when Cree teenager Neil Stonechild died of hypothermia. Saskatoon police were accused of abandoning him in a remote part of the city when temperatures were -28 C. A decade later, a friend recanted earlier testimony, saying police had picked up Stonechild. A 2003 provincial inquiry confirmed the teen was in police custody but couldn’t pinpoint the circumstances around his death. MacCormack’s video pays homage to Stonechild as well, when Alexus mentions him.

‘They just left me there’

“This is not how a society functions,” intones Alexus in the film. In clear, concise language and with a transfixing tone, she describes her own starlight tour.

“They took my shoes and my jacket. They didn’t say anything. They didn��t do nothing,” said Alexus, who discloses she was drunk that night but not disorderly. The police then drove her outside of Saskatoon city limits.

“They just left me there.”

Fortunately, a couple driving home that night picked her up and dropped her off at her apartment.

“If it wasn’t for them, I don’t know what would have happened.”

Collages and animation punctuate and dance with Alexus’ words. Super-8 footage of the Prairies interplay with old films of indigenous children at residential schools. Coupled with Alexus’ description, the film is emotionally potent — she comes off vulnerable at times but retains a powerful voice.

“I have three hours of audio of her and edited it down,” explained MacCormack, who first encountered Alexus at a Winnipeg program helping marginalized women and youth in conflict with the law.

The artist — who holds an MFA from Germany’s Bauhaus University and also taught at Montreal’s Concordia University — was engaged in a project involving Alexus and three other women, who also had interactions with the law.

MacCormack continued to work with Alexus on projects even after the centre running the program shut down.

“By the time we started this project, we were friends. So in 2010, I asked her to pick a subject she would be comfortable with talking about that involved her relationship with the criminal justice system,” said MacCormack, who identifies as genderqueer herself. The video took two years to complete.

“The way she tells it is mesmerizing. She takes you on a journey and you understand it. There is such attention to detail.”

The video has screened around the world (India, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin, Hamburg, Paris, Los Angeles, Boston, New York and San Francisco) over the past four years, including festivals across Canada in Montreal, Ottawa, Prince Albert, Sask., Winnipeg, Regina and Toronto.

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[Artist Jess MacCormack’s video has screened around the world. PHOTO: Jess MacCormack.]

Boundary-pushing exhibit

“The story is told so well, visually and had an authentic voice,” Henri Geets, one of the six Berlin-based curators of the exhibition “millionaires can be trans*// you are so brave,” told Yahoo Canada News. “It hit a nerve.”

Co-curator Neda Sanai agrees: “The racism is [like] an emotional bridge. A way into the trans topic. And, we didn’t know about these starlight tours! We thought — what did she do to get that treatment? And then you discover, no, she was just herself. Her ‘flaw’ was to be indigenous and trans.”

The exhibit pushes new boundaries for the 31-year-old Schwules Museum*. Schwuler means gay man in German and for most of its life, the museum featured the homosexual life of cis men (they identify with the gender they were assigned at birth).

“We moved into a much bigger space three years ago,” board member Kevin Clarke told Yahoo Canada News. “We have a vast archive and a library of thousands of material, films, art and books.” The archive contains every gay publication from around the world going back 200 years.

Clarke says the museum, run on donations and an annual 250,000 euros in city funding, aims to be more inclusive as many previous exhibits were curated by the same “gay male curators.”

“We want to get fresh people in here. And when the [six curators] suggested the trans exhibit, we decided to take the risk,’ Clarke said. “We have seen new people come in and 400 people showed up at the opening.”

‘The world is so violent’

Since the exhibit opened on May 20 (it closes Sept. 18), Sanai says, “the feedback from our community has been very positive. People like the approach.”

The approach — i.e. tone/attitude — is reflected in the irony of the exhibit’s name: millionaires can be trans*//you are so brave*.

“The title ironically refers to two dominant perspectives within the media. Firstly, millionaires can be trans*, critiques the obsession with trans* celebrity success [for example, Caitlin Jenner],” Geets said. “Secondly, you are so brave* refers to a common phrase that reduces trans lives to heroic acts.”

MacCormack is also tired of pat phrases.

“Instead of saying ‘you are so brave’ to individuals, we should be turning our attention externally, which is ‘the world is so violent.’”

The work cuts deep into MacCormack’s own history and experiences. Both she and her family dealt with sexual abuse and went through the courts. She also had a First Nations uncle who lived on the streets of Vancouver and was “regularly beaten by the cops,” according to MacCormack, who has had mental issues and health problems of her own since her teens, including self-harm, drug addiction, eating disorders, suicidal tendencies and depression.

“I come to Alexus’ story with a lot of empathy and mutual support,” she underlines. “The project was created because…we have a collaborative dynamic [as friends].”

Alexus gets a cut of the film’s screenings fees as well.

“It’s great that Alexus’ voice is in this museum and that the histories of Canada are being exposed,” said MacCormack, who is currently working on another project in Germany with other artists.

“Being in Germany has been clarifying for me because you think about the Holocaust and then you look [at what happened to indigenous people] and you can see, yes it’s a Holocaust, too.”

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