The aim of this article is to examine how different modes of moving image practice can expose and critique the impacts of extractive capitalism and settler colonialism on Indigenous communities in northern Canada. The article focuses on the work of two contemporary artist-filmmakers, Thirza Cuthand and Thomas Kneubühler. Their work has consistently engaged with the impacts of late capitalist violence and power within the context of settler-colonial Canada. The article argues that these filmmakers’ engagements and critiques of such formations of power are built around radically different framings and conceptualizations of futurity—as both a dominant logic within the exploitative rationale of extractive capitalist speculation and projection (Kneubühler), but also as a potential catalyst for Indigenous decolonization and self-determination (Cuthand).
“For Indigenous nations to live, capitalism must die.”—Glen Coulthard1
We are presented with a shot of an empty rural landscape. The bottom third of the image is dominated by a wide expanse of shrubland. The central portion of the image is crossed by a thin vein of undulating rock. Above, a cloud-covered sky. The camera shakes slightly, rendering the whole space as a vibrating mass. A voice, distorted and crackling, partially fills this open space; at once contained and muffled, yet also drifting across the plain. “Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for standing by. Welcome to the Oceanic Iron Ore Corporation conference call. During the presentation, all participants will be in a listen-only mode. If you have a question, please press the one followed by the four on your telephone.” This is the opening of Thomas Kneubühler’s Forward Looking Statements (2014), a short video work that directly juxtaposes an extended visual examination of a traditional hunting ground for the Aupaluk First Nations community of Nunavik with audio extracts from a conference call from Oceanic Iron Ore Corporation, a company that wishes to extract iron ore properties from this site. The work is part of the larger multimedia Land Claim project (2014–15), which attempts to visualize and critique the transnational machinations—and attendant spatial impacts—of several multinational resource extraction companies operating within northern Quebec.
Another space, a different film. Here, two characters sit on a sofa, framed in a medium close-up. The distant sounds of explosions can be heard. “Loud noises, bangs, fires, explosions everywhere, you couldn’t find a safe place. I never ran so much in my life,” says the character seated on the left. The pair proceeds to discuss their strategies for survival during an unnamed conflict. Another character appears on the screen, saying, “It just seemed there was this resignation. I didn’t know that they were going to leave.” As this character speaks, we are presented with a shot of a nighttime space rocket launch. There is a sharp burst of light from the rocket’s engine, then slowly the frame is filled by plumes of white smoke. The character continues, “It’s unchartered territory for them, them being colonizers. I feel more for the planet Mars than I do for them.” This is the opening of Thirza Cuthand’s Reclamation (2018), a film that imagines a futuristic post-apocalyptic Canada where the settler-colonizers of Indigenous lands have fled the earth for Mars, their new colonial frontier. The film’s protagonists discuss their hopes and objectives for restoring traditional Indigenous modes of existence and knowledge-creation, aimed at creating a radically reinvented, decolonized, and equitable future on Earth. This film is part of Cuthand’s NDN Survival Trilogy (2020), three short video works that examine the forms of political, economic, and social violence exacted by the settler-colonizer.
The aim of this article is to examine how both Kneubühler’s and Cuthand’s moving image works expose and critique the impacts of extractive capitalism and settler colonialism on Indigenous communities in northern Canada. This article argues that across both works such a critique is built around radically different framings and conceptualizations of futurity—as both a dominant logic within the exploitative rationale of extractive capitalist speculation and projection (Kneubühler), but also as the potential catalyst for Indigenous decolonization and self-determination (Cuthand). More precisely, within Kneubühler’s work we are presented with a future that is intrinsically structured around the precarious and unknown exploitations that might take place across the landscape of Aupaluk: a future that is inextricably bound up with extractive capitalism’s own forward projections, gambles, and risks. Through his work, Kneubühler examines how a fundamental part of extractive capitalism’s destructive power is its desire to dominate conceptualizations of future events. Strategies of extractive capitalist planning—topographical surveying, forward-looking statements, financial speculation—almost serve to colonize the future.
Alternatively, within Cuthand’s work we find a radically different approach to the concept of futurity. This article argues that Reclamation can be read as a powerful example of an Indigenous futurist text. Extending from—and building upon—the theoretical heritage of Afrofuturism, Indigenous futurism is similarly invested in imagining alternative futurities that have the potentiality to carve open spaces for more concrete enactments of decolonization and self-determination for Indigenous peoples globally. Across the NDN Survival Trilogy, we find a desire to try to imagine and construct such radical futurities. Within the radical forms of speculation fashioned by Cuthand and her cast, practices of decolonization and self-determination happen at a material remove from the settler-colonial state, imagining forms of existence that go beyond supposedly reparative and reconciliatory relationships with the settler-colonizer. As Indigenous scholar Erica Violet Lee suggests, discussing the radical potentialities of Indigenous futurisms, “in knowing the histories of our relations…we find the knowledge to recreate all that our worlds would’ve been if not for the interruption of colonization.”2 Cuthand’s work similarly imagines radical alternative futurities, while still offering up biting critiques of extractive capitalism and settler colonialism. Thus, this article aims to examine how both Kneubühler and Cuthand are primarily concerned with questions of temporality and futurity, but take up these conceptual and theoretical concerns in radically different ways to build their critiques of extractive capitalism and settler colonialism. Before moving into an engagement with each artist’s work, it is important to begin with an examination of the intersecting histories of extractive capitalism and settler colonialism, and their impact upon Indigenous life. This economic and political framing will set up the exploration of Kneubühler’s and Cuthand’s work and their divergent—yet equally politically productive—uptakes and examinations of futurity.
Extractivism and Primitive Accumulation
Contemporary forms of neoliberal governance, alongside intertwined late-capitalist modes of economic rationality, have led to a marked rise in exploitative and unregulated extractive practices globally. As Waynee Kinuthia has suggested, the driving force behind such extractive acceleration was the mass privatization of extractive industries in the late 1980s and early ’90 s and the interconnected establishment of the “free entry mining system.”3 According to Kinuthia, such processes of global privatization within the extractive sector extended primarily from the “worldwide liberalization process of mining regimes…along with other liberalization measures adopted during the Washington Consensus in the 1990s.”4 The neoliberal economic policy prescriptions put forward by the Washington Consensus aimed to promote supranational processes of deregulation, privatization, and investment liberalization. The extractive sector was one of the primary areas targeted by such policy prescriptions. As Kinuthia suggests, forcing open typically nationalized extractive sectors to multinational privatization and investment was a primary method for encouraging economic growth within supposedly “faltering” or “underdeveloped” national economies. However, such a blind belief in the power of the free market had serious knock-on effects, with studies showing that upticks in privatized resource extraction often “impoverish[ed] affected communities, even in industrialized countries like Canada.”5 As state-based control of mining industries was reduced globally, private entities became the functioning “owner and operator” of the sector—often with nation-states becoming complicit in maintaining this new model of private dominance.6 A crucial facet of this mass privatization was the rise of the “free entry mining system.”7 Here, minimal state protections were removed as barriers to entry, allowing for full and unfettered exploitation of protected lands. Within the Canadian context, Indigenous communities have borne the brunt of such free entry exploitation. As new zones for extraction are increasingly sought out in Canada’s northern territories, they increasingly infringe upon Indigenous lands and rights.
In many ways, these contemporary forms of exploitation are an extension of historic forms of capitalist-driven settler colonialism—what David Harvey would define as a progression from Karl Marx’s theory of “primitive accumulation” to “accumulation by dispossession.” As Kinthua suggests, “accumulation by dispossession refers to the persistence and increase of accumulation practices that Karl Marx had regarded as ‘primitive’ or ‘original’ during the birth of capitalism.”8 For Harvey, these primitive processes include land privatization, forceful eviction, and “colonial, neo-colonial and imperial processes of appropriation of assets.”9 Harvey argues that, under contemporary forms of neoliberal governance and late-capitalist economic rationality, these “primitive” practices have continued with renewed force. Glen Coulthard makes a markedly similar point in his book Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition (2014), suggesting that Marx’s original formulation of “primitive accumulation” was too “temporally rigid.” For Coulthard, “the escalating onslaught of violent, state-orchestrated enclosures following neoliberalism’s ascent to hegemony has unmistakably demonstrated the persistent role that unconcealed, violent dispossession continues to play in the reproduction of colonial and capitalist social relations in both the domestic and global contexts.”10 Thus, for Harvey, Coulthard, and Kinthua, such processes of primitive and original dispossession have persisted within the contemporary neoliberal privatization of extractive industries globally. Such practices of dispossession cannot be read as a historic, temporally bounded stage of capitalist development; they persist with renewed vigor under the interwined logics of neoliberalist governance and late-capitalist economic rationality.
As Harvey goes on to suggest, such accumulatory logics mean that “non-capitalist territories should be forced open not only to trade…but also to permit capital to invest in profitable ventures using cheaper labour power, raw materials, [and] low-cost land.”11 Thus, within the current neoliberal and late-capitalist epoch of extractive privatization we see a continuation and rearticulation of what Patrick Bond terms “primitive looting tactics.”12 The theft of Indigenous space is a primitive looting tactic that is now justified through neoliberal discourses of economic development and stimulation. Such processes have continued at a renewed pace, although—as I have hinted at above—it is now less likely to be individual states involved in colonial primitive accumulation. Rather, transnational private corporations involved in the extractive industries have become the primary instigators of such “looting tactics” and dispossessory strategies. Different reports and surveys have attempted to delineate the main impacts of such accumulatory logics. A United Nations report entitled “Indigenous Peoples and Industrial Corporations” lists several of the central impacts of such exploitative logics, including “environmental damage,” “forced displacement,” and the “loss of culture, traditional knowledge and livelihoods.”13 Here, then, there are clear and tangible impacts of such colonial and late-capitalist extractive logics on a variety of Indigenous communities and populations.
It is also important to highlight that across these geographical-Marxist theorizations, the spatial is the central zone of struggle and contestation. The theft of material space is the driving logic behind such processes of extraction and accumulation. The centrality of the spatial in these theorizations is clearly indebted to the wider spatial turn in social and cultural theory, extending from Henri Lefebvre’s canonical The Production of Space (1974) to Harvey’s notion of the spatial fix.14 Clearly, when thinking through the ways in which colonial extractive capitalism materially impacts myriad geographies, such spatialized readings become essential. Moreover, for Coulthard, the spatial and geographical framings of such processes of dispossession are particularly pertinent when examining the forms of neocolonial extraction within settler-colonial Indigenous contexts. The typical process of primitive accumulation is initially focused on territorial and resource privatization, which is then followed by an inevitable stage of proletarianization (producing “a ‘class’ of workers compelled to enter the exploitative realm of the labor market for their survival,” due to their initial alienation from their means of subsistence).15 However, within the Indigenous context, the struggle typically remains centered around the initial material spatial dispossession. Thus, settler-colonial dispossession typically remains structured around the theft of material space. As Coulthard writes, these struggles are then “primarily inspired by and oriented around the question of land.”16 Thus, struggles of territory and space have been the primary zone of settler-colonial violence and it is around such land-based struggles that resistance must be waged.
As we shall see, while Kneubühler’s and Cuthand’s works are primarily concerned with the question of futurity, this issue is always intimately connected to struggles over territorial space. Across both artists’ works, the “question of land” is a recurring theme that is constantly placed in dialogue with how forms of futurity are imagined and leveraged within the territorial spaces that are being struggled over. In Kneubühler’s work, we find an examination of how such extractive multinationals engage in the creation of what we could term “precarious futurities.” Indeed, the term “forward looking statements” is, as Kneubühler suggests, “used in the world of investors to describe future events which are subject to certain risks and uncertainties.”17 While nothing may change materially across these spaces, precarious futures of possible exploitation always hang over them. Alternatively, in Cuthand’s work, we see a continual focus on how alternative futurities can be structured around radical relationships with material space—ones that also crucially break away from capitalist-colonial forms of exploitation and violence. Thus, within their work, we find a radically different engagement with futurity and land, one that aims to examine how new forms of existence can be created that exist beyond the limits of the settler-colonial state.
Colonizing Futures: Thomas Kneubühler’s Forward Looking Statements
Across the broader Land Claim project, Kneubühler examines the interrelations between three seemingly disparate locations: Raglan, a nickel mine in Northern Quebec; Aupaluk, an Indigenous village in Nunavik (under threat by a planned iron mine); and Zug, Switzerland, a known tax haven, where the headquarters of several Swiss mining companies are located. Part of this multimedia project brings together a range of C-prints that examine different facets of these three sites. We are presented with images of miners, mining camps, exploratory drill holes, company jets, helicopters, and offices. Kneubühler’s images seem to oscillate between a close, localized examination of these individual sites and a broader focus on the logistical and economic infrastructures supporting their connections to global capital and trade. Two images that are directly juxtaposed here are Miners and Traders. Within the first image, Miners, we are presented with a set of miners’ headsets charging in docks at the Raglan mine. The second image, Traders, presents us with the exterior of a corporate building in Zug. This simple strategy of juxtaposition forges connections between two sites that might otherwise have remained materially and conceptually detached. Indeed, Zug’s status as a tax haven for private multinationals is suggestive of an inherent desire for sequestering and concealment (from oversight, regulation, and fiscal legality) by such extractive multinationals. Thus, by drawing these two spaces together, Kneubühler forces us to consider the interrelations between these—and other—locales that form part of a much wider and complex network of exploitation.
In Forward Looking Statements, the first of two video works that formed a part of this larger multimedia project, we see the development of this similar oscillatory strategy. As briefly suggested in the introduction, the work directly juxtaposes the extended visual examination of a traditional hunting ground for the Aupaluk community with audio extracts from Oceanic Iron Ore Corporation’s conference calls with its investors, in which the discussion circulates around the possibilities for resource extraction from this site. This article contests that such visual and aural juxtapositions function as a polemical spatio-political critique of these multinationals’ planned future exploitation of such precarious spaces. Ultimately, through the employment of a rigorous spatio-political aesthetic, Kneubühler aims to throw into sharp relief the obfuscated socioeconomic machinations of such multinational organizations: the speculative flows of global capital encounter the materiality of the landscapes they wish to exploit.
Throughout Forward Looking Statements, Kneubühler’s GoPro camera—mounted on top of his guide Charlie Angutinguak’s ATV—moves across a section of the Aupaluk landscape, where another potential mining site might be opened. Unstable and juddering over the uneven terrain, the camera seems to render the materiality of the landscape. As previously mentioned, the audio accompanying this work comes from an Oceanic Iron Ore Corporation conference call describing the possibility for future extraction from this site. The Oceanic Iron Ore Corporation is a Vancouver-based resource extraction multinational, particularly focused on the Ungava Bay area of Northern Quebec. Approximately halfway through the call, we hear from the company’s Chief Operating Officer, Alan Gorman: “The prefeasibility study delivers positive economic results. We have assumed a price for iron of $100. All amounts have been recorded in US dollars with a one-to-one exchange rate and the base case, pre-tax net present value of $5.6 billion.” As Gorman continues to speak, the camera snakes along the side of a rocky outcrop, seemingly searching for an appropriate place to scale this incline. How then does Kneubühler’s visual-aural juxtaposition seek to map the interconnections between the abstract extractive future speculation of the Oceanic Iron Ore Corporation and the materiality of the sites they wish to exploit?
To answer this question, it is useful to turn to another aesthetic-topographic notion: the stratigraphic image. As Tom Conley suggests, “Gilles Deleuze speculates that modern cinema accedes to a ‘new visibility of things.’ The visibility he describes is of a character that accompanies what he calls the new and unforeseen presence of the ‘stratigraphic’ image.”18 For Deleuze, with the shift from the movement-image to the time-image, “the visual image becomes archaeological, stratigraphic, tectonic. Not that we are taken back to prehistory…but to the deserted layers of our time which bury our own phantoms” (emphasis original).19 As the durational temporality of the time-image came to dominate modern moving-image practice, there was a fundamental shift in the visual representation of space: a change that pushed to the fore the archaeological, stratigraphic, and tectonic qualities of cinema’s rendering of landscape. As Conley continues, “Deleuze sketches out what seems to be a thumbnail treatise of the landscape of contemporary cinema. He writes of a layered and metamorphic landscape, a landscape composed of so many deposits of time that it indicates the presence of an extremely long duration” (emphasis original).20
In Deleuze’s formulation, this new cinematic stratigraphy fits into the larger function of the time-image, which was supposed to foster a new “cinematic visibility of the world.” In certain ways, the notion of the stratigraphic image can be read as a precursor to the contemporary practice of deep mapping; long-form multimedia documentations of particular spaces that aim to render “inherent instabilities” as well as “the ongoing development of a place’s identity, and its capacity to reveal historical and contemporary human experience” in an almost palimpsestic fashion.21 For Deleuze, the formally rigorous and avowedly modernist filmmakers Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub were the primary practitioners of this new cinematic stratigraphy. Their images traced “the abstract curve of what has happened, and where the earth stands for what is buried in it.”22
Thus, the works of Huillet and Straub constituted a “manual of stratigraphy,” with each shot “functioning as a cross section revealing little pointed lines of absent facies and full lines of those we continue to touch.”23 Conley readily acknowledges the metaphorical thrust of Deleuze’s conceptualization. He argues that the stratigraphic image works in a dialectical fashion, causing “one to think of the impossibility of being able to think about or through it in all its totality…Yet we are able to perceive to some degree what we cannot perceive.”24 Thus, the process of stratigraphy makes us confront the impossibility of comprehending the precise functioning of the social totality, while concomitantly allowing us to discover the cracks and fissures left behind by such macro-movements. Huillet and Straub’s 1981 essay film Trop tôt/Trop tard (Too Early, Too Late) is a prime example of this oscillatory dialectic. The film is divided into two parts, the first shot across various locations in rural France. Landscapes dominate, figures remain fleeting. Accompanying these rural landscape shots is Huillet’s voiceover, reading extracts from a letter correspondence between Friedrich Engels and Karl Kautsky. The letter, dating from 1889, describes the “impoverished state of the French peasantry” resulting mainly from their exploitation by feudal-based farming systems.25 The second section—shot throughout Egypt—contains extracts from a Marxist text by Mahmoud Hussein, focusing on the Egyptian peasants’ “resistance to English occupation prior to the ‘petit-bourgeois’ revolution of Neguib in 1952.”26 As Jonathan Rosenbaum has suggested, both sections “suggest that the peasants revolted too soon and succeeded too late.”27 Within both sections, the voiceover undermines any neat or pictorial rendering of the landscape—examining, interrogating, and excavating palimpsestic spaces of historical significance in peasant resistance movements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
It is arguable that within Forward Looking Statements there is a similar stratigraphic impulse at work. Kneubühler seeks to examine the topographic transformation of the landscape and the concomitant impact upon its inhabitants, both of which are under threat from the machinations of extractive capitalism. However, there is a fundamental difference that places Kneubühler’s work somewhat apart from the particularities of both Deleuze’s theorization and Huillet and Straub’s practice. The stratigraphy of the latter two is centrally concerned with a palimpsestic deep mapping of the historical landscape; unearthing often partially uncovered or sociopolitically unacknowledged past injustices and horrors. Alternatively, Kneubühler’s work is less of an archaeological examination of the palimpsestic histories of the Nunavik landscape. Instead, the film offers a meditation on the precarious and unknown future exploitations and injustices that might take place within this space. In certain ways, this ties us back to our earlier examination of Harvey’s spatial fix. When we confront the precarious unknown futures of the landscape and its inhabitants we are also confronting how these are inextricably bound up with late capitalism’s own projections and risks. Therefore, instead of an excavatory look back, we are instead offered a precarious look forward at a landscape and people in flux—unsettled by extractive capital’s future projections.
This strategy of “looking forward” deployed by the work—bridging of the speculative conference call with a material traversal of the land—brings us back to the notion of precarious futurities suggested at the outset of this article. Kneubühler’s work is interested in examining how forms of late capitalist speculation instill these spaces with future precarity—a projection of possible exploitation that is always intimately tied to the fickle machinations of transnational global capital. Perhaps development will begin, perhaps it won’t; a landscape may be destroyed, and afterward, investment removed. Indeed, Harvey has examined how the spatial fixing response is riven through with its own contradictions:
it has to build a fixed space…necessary for its own functioning at a certain point in its history only to have to destroy that space (and devalue much of the capital invested therein) at a later point in order to make way for a new ‘spatial fix’…at a later point in its history.28
The reason for such destruction is the speculative and fickle nature of financial capital that underpins such spatial machinations. As Harvey goes on to suggest, these are always “speculative developments,” and if they prove unprofitable, they may be devalued and, ultimately, destroyed.29 Within Forward Looking Statements, the speculative flows of global capital encounter the materiality of the landscapes they wish to exploit.
Consequently, Kneubühler takes up aspects of Deleuze’s stratigraphy, while simultaneously moving beyond it, constructing a dialectical relationship between abstract financial future speculation and a topographical engagement with its proposed sites of future spatial fixing and exploitation. Telescoping the abstract, opaque, and speculative with a material traversal of the spaces of future exploitation, Kneubühler aims to visualize and critique extractive capitalism’s increasingly opaque spatial machinations that almost serve to colonize the future. As Alberto Toscano and Jeff Kinkle suggest, what is at stake in such aesthetic praxes “is the figurability or representability of our present and its shaping effect on political action.”30 While the central polemic of Kneubühler’s project may seem deceptively simple, its emphasis on the need to constantly apprehend the link between abstract financial flows, market speculation, and the excavation and exploitation of material space is an important example of how futurity is examined and critiqued in his work. It is through such strategies that we can begin to apprehend the slow cultivation of precarious futurities that extend from such extractive speculation.
Kneubühler’s stratigraphic approach—through its presentation of the local, textural, and material sites of extractive capital’s future exploitation—inserts points of rupture into a system that is typically read as abstracted and speculative. It is precisely here, within these sites of tension, that we can begin to tease open the fissures, cracks, and contradictions embedded within the operative logics of the extractive industries. For Toscano, “there is much to learn from those critical artistic practices which at one and the same time seek to ‘see it whole’ and to explore the numerous ways in which such sight is imposed or occluded, modulated and mutable.”31 Within Kneubühler’s work, we find such an intersectional approach: attempting to map a global system of speculation and future projection while also remaining attentive to the myriad of local material realities on the ground. Through the oscillatory strategies adopted by Kneubühler—which shuttle between the macro and micro, future and present—he examines how these extractive and speculative forms of violence have disastrous impacts on the local, microphysical level. By examining the landscapes of potential exploitation, Kneubühler does not allow these forms of speculation to fully colonize Indigenous futures. Rather, Forward Looking Statements regrounds such abstracted and speculative forms of violence, returning them to—and enmeshing them within—the sites and spaces of possible exploitation. Future forms of violence are thus powerfully juxtaposed with the present state of the Indigenous landscapes that are under threat, and, as a result, these future forms of colonization and extraction are unable to assume full control over the present state of this Indigenous space.
Indigenous Futurity: Thirza Cuthand’s NDN Survival Trilogy
Thirza Cuthand’s NDN Survival Trilogy offers an interesting counterpoint to Kneubühler’s project. As briefly suggested in the introduction, within Cuthand’s work we find radically different forms of speculation and futurist projection being foregrounded and aimed at examining what lies beyond the limits of such exploitative and violent capitalist settler-colonial logics. In Cuthand’s work, we move away from an examination of how capitalist projections and speculation have the potential to repeatedly colonize Indigenous presents and futures, focusing instead on the agency that lies within the creation of Indigenous-produced futurities. Here, the focus is primarily on the role Indigenous cultural practices can play in the imagination and creation of radically different modes of existence and speculative life. The central focus of this section will be Reclamation, a thirteen-minute video work and the third part of the NDN Survival Trilogy. It is in this post-apocalyptic science fiction work that we find the most consistent engagement with Indigenous futurist narratives and themes.
The film centers on several Indigenous protagonists who discuss how they will attempt to reconstruct the world—socially, politically, culturally, environmentally—following the exodus of white settlers for the “new colonial frontier” of Mars. This fleeing of the settler-colonizer followed a large global conflict and the near-eradication of life on earth. In Reclamation, Cuthand is interested in examining how Indigenous futurities might be most powerfully imagined and developed at a complete remove from the violence and domination wrought by settler colonialism. For Cuthand, it is only by completely extricating Indigenous futures from these colonizing structures of power that true practices of alterity and decolonization can take place. This article argues that the sorts of Indigenous futurities that are imagined in Reclamation are closely aligned with Coulthard’s formulation of grounded normativity. For Coulthard, grounded normativity defines “the modalities of Indigenous land-connected practices and longstanding experiential knowledge that inform and structure…ethical engagements with the world and…relationships with human and nonhuman others over time.”32 Imagining the development and potentialities for such land-based and experiential practices is a constant theme of Reclamation, and is representative of how Cuthand fuses together a concern with both material space and Indigenous futurity. Thus, by drawing together Indigenous futurist narratives with a desired return to traditional forms of grounded normativity, Cuthand’s work offers a powerful vision for future decolonial and anti-capitalist forms of existence.
As briefly mentioned in the introduction to this article, Indigenous futurism has become an important area of theoretical and political enquiry in recent years. Such Indigenous-oriented futurist thought clearly extends from the previous cultural and theoretical development of Afrofuturism—a meshing of variegated forms of cultural production and political thought that sought to “imagine greater justice and a freer expression of black subjectivity in the future or in alternative places, times, or realities.”33 A melding of technocultural, dystopian, utopian, and posthumanist thought, Afrofuturist narratives seek to construct alternative imaginations of the world where black life is not, as Kodwo Eshun suggests, “condemned…to prehistory.”34 As Eshun continues on to argue, “Afrofuturism, then, is concerned with the possibilities for intervention within the dimension of the predictive, the projected, the proleptic, the envisioned, the virtual, the anticipatory and the future conditional.”35 Thus, Afrofuturist thinking is always speculating about the possibility of creating life worlds that place black experience and identities at their center. Indigenous futurism shares many of these objectives, concerned with thinking through alternative forms of existence that place Indigeneity at their center, while simultaneously attempting to deconstruct and move beyond the structures of capitalist settler colonialism. As Rebecca Roanhorse suggests, Indigenous futurism is interested in “reclaiming our place in an imagined future in space, on earth, and everywhere in between.”36 It is the contention of this article that Cuthand’s work is an example of such an Indigenous futurist practice, concerned simultaneously with placing Indigenous experience and identity at the core of futurist thinking, while also simultaneously divorcing itself from the structuring influences of the capitalist settler-colonial state to truly allow alternative modes of existence to thrive and flourish. Here, we will examine how Cuthand’s work operates as such an Indigenous futurist text aimed at imaging an outside to capitalist setter-colonial life worlds by advocating for a future that is based around a practice closely related to Coulthard’s land-based practice of grounded normativity.
At the opening of the film, one of the protagonists, seated on a sofa, suggests, “I was scared that they had done so much to this planet that there would be no way for us to fix it.” We are then presented with a wide panning shot of an expanse of felled trees. The sound of a chainsaw then fills this desolate space. This is followed by a wide shot of a factory landscape in silhouette, a large plume of smoke creeping toward a setting sun. Next, there is a shoreline covered in ocean debris. We then cut back to the two protagonists. “It’s a lot cleaner,” they state. “It smells good here. It smells like nature. It smells like we’re making a difference here; we’ve cleaned a lot of this area up.” Within the next section of the film, the various protagonists further elucidate the different ways in which they are attempting to rebuild, restructure, and heal the material world around them. We see the same protagonists outdoors, standing by a large recycling container and wearing gas masks.
The protagonist on the right states, “This is what we do—we clean up things. We make sure the area is safe for barefoot walking.” Pointing to the recycling container, the protagonist says, “This is just one of our bins. We’ve filled up approximately 500,000 bins since the white people left. It’s a full-time job cleaning up after these pukes.” We then return to the other protagonist on the sofa, who describes their love of gardening:
I just remember before all this happened, just walking through the city and not even really knowing myself what certain plants were, what certain trees were. I started thinking—even before all these climate and environmental wars broke out—what would I do if I lost all of this in a day? So, I started thinking about plants, reconnecting through foraging, gardening, and remediating different parts of the cities we were living in. So, I started trying to teach myself that. Now I’m starting to work with communities and developing gardens and developing practices around foraging and feeding ourselves locally, because there is no other option anymore.
Over these words, we are presented with a handheld tracking shot that moves over several planting beds, containing a variety of herbs and vegetables. Within this opening third of the film, there is a continual foregrounding of our protagonists’ shared desire to materially reorganize and regenerate material land and space in ways that can create radical alternatives to capitalist and settler-colonial modes of living. As briefly mentioned above, this focus on the primacy of ecology, land, and decolonial collectivity links up closely with Coulthard’s conception of grounded normativity. Coulthard, further defining grounded normativity, suggests that it “attempts to capture the ethical engagements—with situations, communities, land, and relationships—that inform our understandings of right and wrong, how to go about resolving conflict, and how to best relate to the world and each other in a healthy and sustainable manner.”37 For Coulthard, grounded normativity has always structured Indigenous existence, yet it perhaps takes on an even more central role as the processes of land dispossession accelerate under the logics of neoliberalism and late capitalism. Before a further examination of how Cuthand’s Reclamation can be read in relation to Coulthard’s notion of grounded normativity, it is worth framing this notion in relation to the wider argument of his book. This wider theoretical framing will help illuminate the centrality of the spatial and territorial within Coulthard’s conceptualization.
One of the central aims of Red Skin, White Masks is to reject the “politics of recognition” that have dominated the attempts to build reconciliatory relationships between First Nations communities and the Canadian settler state in recent decades. Coulthard sees these forms of “affirmative recognition and institutional accommodation” as reproducing “the very configurations of colonialist, racist, patriarchal state power that Indigenous peoples’ demands for recognition have historically sought to transcend.”38 Fundamentally, with such forms of recognition being primarily organized and orchestrated by the settler state, they typically end up facilitating the continued dispossession of Indigenous peoples’ “lands and self-determining authority.” Coulthard moves on to suggest that while violent “policies, techniques, and ideologies explicitly oriented around the genocidal exclusion/assimilation” might have become less prominent tools of contemporary colonialism, they have been replaced by “a seemingly more conciliatory set of discourses and institutional practices that emphasize our recognition and accommodation” (emphasis original).39 Despite such a transition, “the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the state has remained colonial to its foundation” (emphasis original).40 Moreover, what these forms of recognition and accommodation politics mask is the fact that the primary motivation for the settler state’s engagement with Indigenous communities is the control and exploitation of their lands and territories. Indeed, Coulthard moves on to quote Patrick Wolfe, who claims that, “territoriality is settler colonialism’s specific, irreducible element.”41 Thus, these forms of contemporary liberal recognition and accommodation politics serve to conceal—and oftentimes structurally facilitate—the continuation of dispossessory Canadian settler-state practices. This links us back to the engagement with Coulthard’s work at the outset of this article, where he suggests that these forms of violence and struggle have always been “primarily inspired by and oriented around the question of land” (emphasis original).42 Moreover, with the mass privatization of extractive industries under the contemporary logics of neoliberalism, we have seen “the persistent role that unconcealed, violent dispossession continues to play in the reproduction of colonial and capitalist social relations in both the domestic and global contexts.”43 As we have already examined, contemporary late capitalism must constantly seek out new spatial and territorial zones for capital accumulation, and Indigenous lands continue to bear the brunt of such dispossessory logics.
Consequently, grounded normativity—with its focus on land-based practices and experiential Indigenous knowledge—has always had a crucial role to play in both Indigenous resistance to colonial-capitalist land dispossession and the redevelopment and cultivation of traditional Indigenous modes of existence for the future. As Coulthard suggests, grounded normativity is motivated by “a struggle not only for land in the material sense, but also deeply informed by what the land as system of reciprocal relations and obligations can teach us about living our lives in relation to one another and the natural world in nondominating and nonexploitative terms.”44 Such a dual emphasis can therefore “inform and structure our ethical engagements with the world and our relationships with human and nonhuman others over time.”45 This is a constant focus throughout Reclamation. The film’s protagonists spend little time discussing the devastating global impacts left by the destructive acceleration of capitalist settler colonialism. Instead, they are primarily preoccupied with imagining how traditional Indigenous forms of existence and knowledge production can help structure radical new futurities that will exist beyond the confines of such colonial-economic formations of power. For example, toward the end of the film, we return to the single protagonist on the sofa, as they discuss what shape such radical futurities might take. Over this section of dialogue, we are presented with a panning shot over an expansive lakeshore space. A series of rock pools break up a flat patch of rock in the foreground, leading up to the open expanse of deep blue water that stretches out to the horizon.
As the protagonist suggests, the community is
really imagining what we want our world to look and feel and sound like. And I think the people that are here, they have this same overarching goal. And even though it’s kind of a mess right now, we can actually work toward something that restores our communities in really good ways—restores the land, restores earth and our relationship to everything around it…there’s this embracing of the unknown and the embracing of possibility. I think it will get us to places I don’t think we could have ever imagined before.
Thus, here we find something of a marriage between a practice of grounded normativity and a radical conception of a post-apocalyptic Indigenous futurism. The protagonists continually focus on what can be achieved beyond the structuring limits of the capitalist settler-colonial state. Following the colonizer’s near-eradication of the earth and subsequent flight to find new colonial frontiers, a space has been carved open for a futurist practice of grounded normativity; a reinvestment in place-based forms of reciprocal subsistence, collective living, and ecological regeneration that are working in contradistinction to those modes of exploitative and ecologically violent existence. Thus, for the protagonists in the film, grounded normativity holds the potential to not only resist colonial capitalism’s dispossessory and extractive logics, it also aims to foreground alternative modes of Indigenous economic and social organization that are culturally and historically rooted and work in opposition to those same logics of capital accumulation. Coulthard makes this point when he suggests,
this form of grounded normativity is antithetical to capitalist accumulation…these economic practices offer a means of subsistence that over time can help break our dependence on the capitalist market by cultivating self-sufficiency through the localized and sustainable production of core foods and life materials that we distribute and consume within our own communities on a regular basis.46
Thus, Coulthard’s theorization and Cuthand’s work interface closely. For Coulthard, the next stage for a resurgent Indigenous practice of grounded normativity is to move beyond any sort of binary relationship with the settler-colonial power. As suggested earlier, Coulthard’s conceptualization is predicated on a complete withdrawal from recognition-based modes of political, social, and cultural reconciliation. For him, such forms of recognition only serve to reemphasize and reinforce the colonizer-colonized relationship and its interconnected forms of dispossession and capitalist exploitation.
Within Cuthand’s futurist work, we have the imagination of what a world beyond such a binary relationship might look like. Clearly, Cuthand’s narrative formulates this move beyond in the most extreme terms—with the settler-colonizer physically removed from the planet. Yet, it is within this material and conceptual space that the protagonists of Reclamation can begin articulating their desires for an Indigenously rejuvenated and decolonized planet. Thus, for both Coulthard and Cuthand, a move beyond supposedly reconciliatory relationships with the colonizer becomes the moment when Indigenous communities can turn their full attention to fostering nondominant and nonexploitative modes of reciprocal social and economic life. The Indigenous futurist narrative we find in Cuthand’s Reclamation consistently aims to envisage and render visible these alternative, decolonial modes of future existence. Here, the post-apocalyptic world of Reclamation is not seen as a terrifying and desolate ending point; rather, it becomes the generative catalyst for imagining specifically Indigenous-produced forms of futurity that can exist at a conceptual and material remove from the dominant—and always intertwined—logics of capitalism and settler colonialism.
As highlighted throughout this article, futurity is the central thematic thread that binds together Kneubühler’s and Cuthand’s work. The forms of futurism confronted and imagined across their divergent practices, however, are radically different. We are offered an exploration of futurity that is imagined by capitalist settler colonialism in its own image (Kneubühler) and another that is created from an Indigenous perspective outside—and in contradistinction to—those same violent and dispossessory logics (Cuthand). However, it is important to stress that this doesn’t mean that Kneubühler’s practice is in some way invalidated by his approach, which examines these operations “from within.” It is important to confront, critique, and attempt to render visible the machinations of capitalist settler colonialism from both inside and outside its internal logics. Kneubühler’s work forces us to see how these dominant structures of power articulate, shape, and manage their relationship with Indigenous space, territories, and communities. These crucial insights and localized, microcosmic engagements allow us to perceive potential cracks, fissures, and points of resistance within systems of power that are typically seen as abstracted, speculative, and all-consuming. Kneubühler’s work regrounds such forms of speculation, ultimately undermining a wholesale colonization of Indigenous futures in Aupaluk. Alternatively, Cuthand’s practice attempts to imagine forms of futurity that could eventually exist outside and beyond such structures of violence and dispossession. Within their work, the moment when the settler-colonial power is placed at a physical remove from the planet is when imaginations of alternative forms of existence can begin.
Perhaps it is possible to interlace these two forms of practice. For visual practices to resist the interconnected logics of extractive capitalism and settler colonialism, perhaps they should draw together explorations from “inside the belly of the beast” and radically reimagined conceptualizations of futurities that could exist after that same “beast” has been eradicated. Kneubühler’s work clearly offers us the former, while Cuthand’s practice is concerned with the latter. Reading practices like these together can reveal fresh insights and modes of aesthetic and political praxis that can resist the violent and dispossessory logics that continue to dominate Indigenous communities globally. Indeed, to complete the quotation from Coulthard that opened this article, “for Indigenous nations to live, capitalism must die. And for capitalism to die, we must actively participate in the construction of Indigenous alternatives to it.”47
Glen Sean Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 173.
Erica Violet Lee, “Reconciling in the Apocalypse,” Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, March 1, 2016, www.policyalternatives.ca/publications/monitor/reconciling-apocalypse.
Wanyee Kinuthia, “‘Accumulation by Dispossession’ by the Global Extractive Industry: The Case of Canada” (Unpublished master’s thesis, University of Ottawa, 2013).
Kinuthia, “‘Accumulation by Dispossession’ by the Global Extractive Industry,” 14.
Kinuthia, “‘Accumulation by Dispossession’ by the Global Extractive Industry,” 20.
“Strategy for African Mining,” World Bank Technical Paper No. 181, Africa Technical Department Series/Mining Unit, Industry and Energy Division (August 1992), 53.
Kinuthia, “‘Accumulation by Dispossession’ by the Global Extractive Industry,” 14.
Kinuthia, “‘Accumulation by Dispossession’ by the Global Extractive Industry,” 12.
David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2005), 159.
Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks, 9.
David Harvey, The New Imperialism (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2003), 139.
Patrick Bond, Looting Africa: The Economics of Exploitation (New York: Zed Books, 2006), 109.
United Nations, “Indigenous Peoples and Industrial Corporations,” Fact Sheet, Indigenous People Indigenous Voices (United Nations, 2018).
David Harvey, “Globalization and the ‘Spatial Fix,’” Geographische Revue no. 3 (2001): 23–30.
Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks, 23.
Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks, 13.
Thomas Kneubühler, “Photophobia 2016,” The Inc (blog), June 20, 2019, www.theinc.ca/photophobia/photophobia-2016.
Tom Conley, “The Strategist and the Stratigrapher,” in Afterimages of Gilles Deleuze’s Film Philosophy, ed. D. N. Rodowick (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), 193.
Gilles Deleuze, Cinema II: The Time-Image, 5th ed. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 243–44.
Conley, “The Strategist and the Stratigrapher,” 193–94.
“Deep Mapping,” Geospatial Innovation in the Digital Humanities (blog), 2015, http://wp.lancs.ac.uk/lakesdeepmap/the-project/gis-deep-mapping.
Deleuze, Cinema II, 244.
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Conley, The Strategist and the Stratigrapher,” 196.
Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Too Early, Too Late,” Chicago Reader, 1983, www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/too-early-too-late/Film?oid=1068259.
Rosenbaum, “Too Early, Too Late.”
Rosenbaum, “Too Early, Too Late.”
David Harvey, “Globalization and the ‘Spatial Fix’”: 25.
David Harvey, “Globalization and the ‘Spatial Fix’”: 25.
Alberto Toscano and Jeff Kinkle, Cartographies of the Absolute (London: Zero Books, 2015), 23.
Alberto Toscano, “Seeing It Whole: Staging Totality in Social Theory and Art,” The Sociological Review 60 (2012): 80.
Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks, 13.
Daylanne K. English, “Afrofuturism,” Oxford Bibliographies, July 26, 2017, www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780190221911/obo-9780190221911-0004.xml.
Kodwo Eshun, “Further Considerations on Afrofuturism,” CR: The New Centennial Review 3, no. 2 (2003): 297.
Eshun, “Further Considerations on Afrofuturism,” 293.
Rebecca Roanhorse, et al., “Decolonizing Science Fiction and Imagining Futures: An Indigenous Futurisms Roundtable,” Strange Horizons (blog), January 30, 2017, http://strangehorizons.com/non-fiction/articles/decolonizing-science-fiction-and-imagining-futures-an-indigenous-futurisms-roundtable.
Karl Gardner and Devin Clancy, “From Recognition to Decolonization: An Interview with Glen Coulthard,” Upping the Anti: A Journal of Theory and Action, February 8, 2017, https://uppingtheanti.org/journal/article/19-from-recognition-to-decolonization.
Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks, 3.
Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks, 6.
Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks, 6.
Patrick Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” Journal of Genocide Studies 8, no. 4 (2006): 388.
Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks, 13.
Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks, 9.
Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks, 13.
Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks, 13.
Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks, 172.
Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks, 173.