Friday, June 07, 2024

The Land Acknowledgement


Back in 2017, we brought Cliff Cardinal's HUFF to ORIGINS. That's a year before this five-star review, which the show received for its Edinburgh run, on the day it closed. With Cliff's work it seems you have to be in the know.... His latest piece, THE LAND ACKNOWLEDGEMENT, which opened LIFT at the Southbank on Wednesday, started off in Canada during 2021, under the title William Shakespeare's As You Like It. As Cliff explains in this version of the show, especially (and necessarily) re-worked for London, that was a ruse to get "rich Canadians" into the theatre. The performance begins with a traditional red curtain in place, and Cliff comes through it to begin a "land acknowledgement". This is one of the things he has to explain in a bit more detail for his London audience: in Canada it's common practice for events to begin with an acknowledgement of the Indigenous people on whose land the event is happening. So the original 2021 audience would have thought his speech was just another tokenistic prelude to the main event, which would of course be the Shakespeare production. They got a bit twitchy as it went on rather longer than usual. Eventually it became clear that there wasn't going to be a Shakespeare production. The land acknowledgement is the entire show. 

I wish I'd seen that original version, and been able to observe the ruse in action, and the extraordinary actor-audience dynamic that must have evolved through the evening. In London, the ruse couldn't work in the same way, and so the title has changed and Cliff is honest from the start about what he's doing, telling the story of those original audiences as part of his performance. But here too, the relationship with the audience is deliberately and deeply uncomfortable. There's laughter a-plenty - the format is essentially a stand-up comedy set - but there are also winces, gasps and moments of profound and disturbed silence. At the Brighton Festival, there were walk-outs. After all, as Cliff points out, a Land Acknowledgement is basically an acknowledgement that the land has been stolen. Usually, when someone acknowledges that they have stolen something, they give it back. But here, the acknowledgement alone seems to be considered sufficient. That must have been very telling in Canada, and it hits home in Britain too, albeit in a slightly different way. The oil companies, the banks, the mining companies...  all those head offices that sit in the City and profit from Indigenous land while poverty wreaks havoc on the res.....  

In Australia, the conventions that have evolved are a bit different. The land acknowledgement there is known as a "welcome to country". Elders are asked (and usually paid) to welcome people onto their lands. But, as an Indigenous Australian activist explained to me, this protocol misses out one crucial aspect in the Indigenous tradition of hospitality, which is that the visitors used to request permission to come onto someone else's lands, and that permission had to be granted before any form of welcome was offered. Nowadays, permission is taken for granted and hospitality has been commodified. It's only by performing a land acknowledgement that you can raise the vital questions about their validity. 

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