7-1 | Table of Con­tents | DOI 10.17742/IMAGE.NBW.7-1.3 | Saltz­manZinkPetrychyn­PDF


Abstract | The old social-demo­c­ra­t­ic Saskatchewan has died. In its place, a neolib­er­al New Saskatchewan has tak­en hold over cul­ture, pol­i­tics, emo­tions, and the econ­o­my. This arti­cle sit­u­ates the pho­tog­ra­phy of Saskatchewan-based pho­tog­ra­phers Valerie Zink and Vera Saltz­man with­in this shift to the oil-based neolib­er­al economies of the New Saskatchewan. I argue that Zink and Saltz­man both work repar­a­tive­ly against the future-ori­ent­ed place-mak­ing strate­gies of neolib­er­al­ism, con­struct­ing new affec­tive economies through a crit­i­cal engage­ment with nos­tal­gia. Placed side by side, Zink’s and Saltzman’s pho­tographs remind us of the place of Indige­nous peo­ples and the impor­tance of water to the flour­ish­ing of life. Their pho­tographs devel­op an alter­na­tive affec­tive econ­o­my in which the cir­cu­la­tion of nos­tal­gia as both a spa­tial and tem­po­ral affect unsticks opti­mism from neolib­er­al­ism, scram­bles its neat tele­olo­gies, col­laps­es region­al dis­tinc­tions, and accounts for the human and envi­ron­men­tal cost of the New Saskatchewan’s unbri­dled opti­mism. By play­ing with and plac­ing nos­tal­gia, Zink and Saltz­man invert the New Saskatchewan’s future-ori­en­ta­tion, pro­duc­ing an alter­na­tive affec­tive econ­o­my atten­tive to those left out of the New Saskatchewan.
Résumé | L’ancienne Saskatchewan socio-démoc­rate est morte. A sa place une Saskatchewan néolibérale a pris en main la cul­ture, la poli­tiques les émo­tions et l’économie. Cet arti­cle met en con­texte les œuvres des pho­tographes saskatchewanais­es Valerie Zink et Vera Saltz­man au cœur de ce change­ment vers une économie néolibérale reposant sur l’industrie du pét­role dans cette nou­velle Saskatchewan. J’avance que Zink et Saltz­man utilise une approche repar­a­tive dans leurs œuvres, con­tre les straté­gies de con­struc­tion d’espace tournées vers le futur du néolibéral­isme et con­stru­isent de nou­velles économies affec­tives à tra­vers un engage­ment cri­tique avec le con­cept de nos­tal­gie. Mis­es côte à côte, les images de Zink et Saltz­man nous rap­pel­lent la place des peu­ples autochtones et l’importance de l’eau dans l’épanouissement de la vie. Leurs images dévelop­pent une économie affec­tive alter­na­tive dans laque­lle la cir­cu­la­tion de la nos­tal­gie en tant qu’affect spa­tial et tem­porel ôte tout opti­misme au néolibéral­isme, cham­boule ses téléolo­gies bien nettes, détru­it ses dis­tinc­tions régionales et prend en con­sid­éra­tion les couts humains et envi­ron­nemen­taux de l’optimisme sans lim­ite de la nou­velle Saskatchewan. En met­tant en con­texte et en jouant avec la nos­tal­gie, Zink et Saltz­man ren­versent l’orientation vers le futur de la nou­velle Saskatchewan et pro­duisent une économie affec­tive alter­na­tive qui por­tent atten­tion à ceux qui sont lais­sés de côté.

Vera Saltz­man (images) | Pho­tog­ra­ph­er
Valerie Zink (images) | Pho­tog­ra­ph­er
Jon Petrychyn (words) | York Uni­ver­si­ty

PLACING NOSTALGIA:
Affect and Photography in the New Saskatchewan

The old Saskatchewan has died. The fam­i­ly farms and small towns once scat­tered across Saskatchewan’s grid have been blown away by the wind, with only ghosts and decay remain­ing. In place of this old Saskatchewan, a New Saskatchewan has tak­en hold. In this Saskatchewan, oil, potash, and indus­tri­al agri­cul­ture reign supreme over cul­ture, pol­i­tics, emo­tions, and the econ­o­my. Once a stag­nant, flat, and bor­ing have-not province, Saskatchewan has been reborn into a bustling hub of eco­nom­ic and cul­tur­al activ­i­ty. Saskatchewan is now in motion.

This is the dis­course of the New Saskatchewan, which places itself as the dom­i­nant term in mul­ti­ple sets of bina­ries: old and new, past and future, stag­na­tion and pros­per­i­ty, social­ism and neolib­er­al cap­i­tal­ism, pub­lic and pri­vate. The phrase “New Saskatchewan” first appeared in the province as the moniker under which Ross Thatcher’s Lib­er­al Par­ty swept to pow­er in Saskatchewan in the 1960s, but its polit­i­cal and emo­tion­al his­to­ry stretch­es on both sides of it, from Wil­frid Laurier’s promise of a “last, best West,” to the cen­tre-right Saskatchewan Party’s res­ur­rec­tion of the phrase in 2003, and to cur­rent Saskatchewan Pre­mier and Saskatchewan Par­ty leader Brad Wall’s 2016 elec­tion slo­gan Keep Saskatchewan Strong (Enoch 193). In its cur­rent for­ma­tion as a dis­course of neolib­er­al­ism, the New Saskatchewan sit­u­ates itself as the hege­mon­ic, log­i­cal, obvi­ous, and com­mon-sense solu­tion to the so-called prob­lem of ide­o­log­i­cal social­ism. Any attempts by the left to gen­er­ate alter­na­tives to social, eco­nom­ic, or cul­tur­al prob­lems of neolib­er­al­ism are often labelled regres­sive by neoliberalism’s pro­po­nents. Left­ist artists and activists often pre-emp­tive­ly dis­avow any emo­tion­al or nos­tal­gic con­nec­tion to the past so as not to be labelled regres­sive, in part as a reac­tion to neoliberalism’s cri­tiques, but also as a rejec­tion of an ide­al­ized past that eras­es the severe inequal­i­ty and geno­cide of Indige­nous peo­ples that allowed the set­tle­ment and devel­op­ment of the province. We can see this left­ist rejec­tion clear­ly in Saskatchewan-based artist and activist Valerie Zink’s pho­tog­ra­phy series’ Oxen and Oil. Zink asserts that her cri­tique of effects of oil on Saskatchewan com­mu­ni­ties is “[m]ore than a didac­tic lament for a pas­toral plains”; it is a call to action (Zink, Oxen). Like­wise, her series Ghosts and Dai­ly News “attempts […] to exam­ine our sus­cep­ti­bil­i­ty to nos­tal­gia in the con­text of demo­graph­ic upheaval” (Zink, Ghosts). As a dis­course with such a hold on the emo­tion­al and polit­i­cal land­scape of the province, the New Saskatchewan’s demand for progress per­me­ates attempts to under­mine it. In the New Saskatchewan, new super­sedes old and pros­per­i­ty super­sedes stag­na­tion. In the New Saskatchewan, the fail­ures of social democ­ra­cy are gone. In their place are neolib­er­al cap­i­tal­ism and the promise of pros­per­i­ty.

The fact that this promise of pros­per­i­ty is not offered to every­one is rarely, if ever, men­tioned in this dis­course, and is used to wash away accu­sa­tions from activists on the left of an impend­ing envi­ron­men­tal or social cri­sis. In this way, the dis­course of the New Saskatchewan dif­fers from oth­er neolib­er­al dis­cours­es, which tend to insti­tute the neces­si­ty of neolib­er­al poli­cies through the spec­tre of cri­sis. Simon Enoch, Direc­tor of the Saskatchewan Office of the Cana­di­an Cen­tre for Pol­i­cy Alter­na­tives, notes that since the pub­li­ca­tion of Nao­mi Klein’s The Shock Doc­trine it has become almost fash­ion­able and per­haps cliché to make this obser­va­tion (Enoch 192). Still, for Enoch, the sup­posed empha­sis on the man­u­fac­ture of crises under neolib­er­al­ism pos­es an inter­est­ing prob­lem for neolib­er­al­ism in Saskatchewan specif­i­cal­ly. When the Saskatchewan Party—the polit­i­cal off­spring of the Saskatchewan Lib­er­als and Pro­gres­sive Conservatives—came to pow­er in 2007, they were hard­ly inher­it­ing a cri­sis, nor would they be able to man­u­fac­ture one with­out seri­ous­ly under­min­ing their cre­den­tials with a social demo­c­rat-lean­ing pop­u­lace. The province was by all accounts begin­ning to expe­ri­ence a boom brought on by the devel­op­ment of its nat­ur­al resources oil and potash, growth that would help the Saskatchewan econ­o­my weath­er the 2008 glob­al finan­cial cri­sis. If there is no cri­sis, Enoch asks, how can the Saskatchewan Par­ty suc­cess­ful­ly sell neolib­er­al­ism? The answer: through the New Saskatchewan, “a dis­course of pros­per­i­ty that promis­es to unleash the full eco­nom­ic poten­tial of the province” (Enoch 193).

Yet the New Saskatchewan is hard­ly new; it has a long geneal­o­gy in the cul­tur­al and polit­i­cal his­to­ry of Saskatchewan. The New Saskatchewan is anoth­er iter­a­tion of what Dale Eisler calls the “myth of Saskatchewan.” Eisler’s essay, pub­lished just a few years before the Saskatchewan Par­ty was first elect­ed into gov­ern­ment, describes the myth as the belief that “Saskatchewan was a promised land of abun­dance and oppor­tu­ni­ty for all” (71-2). The Saskatchewan myth emerges first dur­ing the set­tle­ment of the West and shifts and morphs through­out the 20th cen­tu­ry as it meets the social gospel of Tom­my Dou­glas and the Co-Oper­a­tive Com­mon­wealth Fed­er­a­tion (CCF), Thatcher’s Lib­er­als, and Grant Devine’s Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­v­a­tives, while still retain­ing its essen­tial char­ac­ter of believ­ing in the pos­si­bil­i­ty that Saskatchewan can be bet­ter. For Eisler, this myth of Saskatchewan is sum­ma­rized best by for­mer Pre­mier Grant Devine: “There’s so much more we can be” (qtd. in Eisler 83). This sen­ti­ment is vague: who is promised abun­dance and oppor­tu­ni­ty? What can we be and become? The myth of Saskatchewan is an emp­ty yet over­flow­ing cat­e­go­ry. It can mean absolute­ly every­thing to every­one, an emp­ty con­tain­er that can be filled with indi­vid­ual fears and desires and picked up by the left and right to suit their cul­tur­al, polit­i­cal, and emo­tion­al needs.

For Enoch and Eisler, the dis­course of the New Saskatchewan and the myth of Saskatchewan cir­cu­late most appar­ent­ly and read­i­ly through suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments. How­ev­er, to para­phrase Devine, there is so much more to the New Saskatchewan. This mytho­log­i­cal and dis­cur­sive shift from old to new, still­ness and stag­na­tion to move­ment and growth, dead and dying to vibrant­ly liv­ing is as much a mate­r­i­al, polit­i­cal, and eco­nom­ic shift as it is an emo­tion­al and affec­tive shift. The dis­course of the New Saskatchewan and the myth of Saskatchewan cir­cu­late not sim­ply as dis­course, thoughts, ideas, and poli­cies, but as affects and emo­tions.

Eisler rec­og­nizes the impor­tance of emo­tion to the myth of Saskatchewan and tries to cap­ture the inef­fa­ble aspects of Saskatchewan that are so hard to rep­re­sent in lan­guage:

There can be no deny­ing the strength of this attach­ment Saskatchewan peo­ple feel towards their province. It has an emo­tion­al, almost spir­i­tu­al dimen­sion to it. No oth­er west­ern province has the same sway over its peo­ple. […]. It is this notion of Saskatchewan on an abstract, emo­tion­al lev­el that is the most fas­ci­nat­ing. Frankly, it is not a con­sis­tent­ly con­scious sort of thing. It man­i­fests itself as more a kind of under­ly­ing aware­ness of the spe­cial bond between the peo­ple and the com­mu­ni­ty we call Saskatchewan. It is expressed in var­i­ous ways: pride in the province; a deep attach­ment to the land; a strong sense of com­mu­ni­ty; and, a pow­er­ful belief in the poten­tial for a bet­ter future. (Eisler 67-8)

What Eisler calls the “spir­i­tu­al” or “not con­scious,” I would instead call affect: the emo­tions that cir­cu­late between peo­ple, the attach­ments we have to oth­ers and to objects, and the uncon­scious and phys­i­o­log­i­cal inten­si­ties between bod­ies. The New Saskatchewan is more than sim­ply a “way of mak­ing sense of a sense­less world” (May qtd. in Eisler 70). The New Saskatchewan is embod­ied in the cir­cu­la­tion of emo­tions and affects and their stick­i­ness to bod­ies and signs, what Sara Ahmed calls “affec­tive economies.” In an affec­tive econ­o­my, emo­tions and signs are “sticky,” adher­ing to and slid­ing off each oth­er as they cir­cu­late (Ahmed 46). Affects are not essen­tial fea­tures of objects—that is, cer­tain objects are not essen­tial­ly opti­mistic or essen­tial­ly hopeful—but instead emerge through their cir­cu­la­tion between objects, here con­ceived of broad­ly as polit­i­cal ide­olo­gies, signs, bod­ies, gov­ern­ments, and pho­tographs. As such, the stick­i­ness and form of affects are con­tin­gent both on the objects encoun­tered and the his­tor­i­cal con­text (Ahmed 18n13). In the New Saskatchewan, opti­mism and hope cir­cu­late between objects, stick­ing to neolib­er­al­ism and slid­ing off social democ­ra­cy. In Douglas’s Saskatchewan the reverse was true: opti­mism stuck to social democ­ra­cy and slid off cap­i­tal­ism.

Affects can emerge from and stick to more than the objects of gov­er­nance, pol­i­cy, and eco­nom­ics dis­cussed by Enoch and Eisler: the cir­cu­la­tion of pho­tog­ra­phy pro­vides its own affec­tive econ­o­my, one that speaks back to the New Saskatchewan and devel­ops alter­na­tives to its neolib­er­al feel­ings. As Elspeth H. Brown and Thy Phu note, pho­tog­ra­phy has always had a close rela­tion­ship to affect the­o­ry, pro­vid­ing a fruit­ful ground from which much of the lit­er­a­ture on emo­tion and affect emerges (Brown and Phu 8). Inspired by Eve Sedgwick’s turn to pho­tog­ra­phy in her the­o­riza­tion of touch­ing and feel­ing, I hope to enact what she calls a “repar­a­tive read­ing” of some recent pho­tog­ra­phy pro­duced with­in the New Saskatchewan. By read­ing repar­a­tive­ly I am read­ing local­ly, con­duct­ing close read­ings of the pho­tographs in an aim to counter the “para­noid” decon­struc­tive ges­ture of expo­sure enact­ed by much cul­tur­al crit­i­cism where every­thing is con­nect­ed to every­thing (Sedg­wick 145). This does not mean that my read­ings will not con­nect the pho­tographs to the larg­er project of neolib­er­al­ism in Saskatchewan. Rather, I want to posi­tion these pho­tographs as objects that cri­tique neoliberalism’s affec­tive economies by imag­in­ing anoth­er per­spec­tive on Saskatchewan, feel­ing their way toward anoth­er future out­side of neolib­er­al cap­i­tal­ism (Sedg­wick 146). If at times a pho­to­graph begins to slip into a para­noid position—that is, if it attempts to cri­tique with­out pos­ing alter­na­tive futures—I attempt to repo­si­tion the pho­to­graph repar­a­tive­ly, to look for oth­er futures and oth­er pos­si­bil­i­ties. I hope that in pho­tog­ra­phy we can begin to feel anoth­er Saskatchewan.

For the remain­der of this arti­cle, I want to focus on the work of two Saskatchewan pho­tog­ra­phers: Valerie Zink and Vera Saltz­man. Their pho­tographs devel­op an alter­na­tive affec­tive econ­o­my in which the cir­cu­la­tion of nos­tal­gia as both a spa­tial and tem­po­ral affect unsticks opti­mism from neolib­er­al­ism, scram­bles its neat tele­olo­gies, col­laps­es region­al dis­tinc­tions, and accounts for the human and envi­ron­men­tal cost of the New Saskatchewan’s unbri­dled opti­mism. That is to say, if the New Saskatchewan depends not only on the dis­cur­sive form of a bet­ter and more live­ly future but also on a future that nec­es­sar­i­ly exists in Saskatchewan, then nos­tal­gia explodes the New Saskatchewan’s nar­ra­tive of excep­tion­al­ism. By play­ing with and plac­ing nos­tal­gia, Zink and Saltz­man invert the New Saskatchewan’s future-ori­en­ta­tion, pro­duc­ing an alter­na­tive affec­tive econ­o­my atten­tive to those left out of the New Saskatchewan.

 

Feeling Saskatchewan

In the gov­ern­ment rhetoric ana­lyzed by Enoch and Eisler, the pri­ma­ry affects that cir­cu­late are opti­mism and hope. These affects are pro­duced by evok­ing the poten­tial of a bet­ter future, a Saskatchewan that can “be so much more.” Valerie Zink’s pho­tographs in Oxen to Oil point towards the human and envi­ron­men­tal effects of such an affec­tive econ­o­my and to an alter­na­tive affec­tive econ­o­my all togeth­er.

Across all of Zink’s pho­tos is an attempt to grap­ple with nos­tal­gia with­out becom­ing “a didac­tic lament for a pas­toral plains” (Zink, Oxen). Engag­ing with feel­ings in Saskatchewan can quick­ly and very eas­i­ly become a nos­tal­gic long­ing for a pas­toral, pre-indus­tri­al, agri­cul­tur­al past. This long­ing emerges not only on the anti-cap­i­tal­ist left, whose long­ing we can per­haps intu­itive­ly under­stand as a long­ing for the social democ­ra­cy of Douglas’s CCF, but also on the pop­u­lar and pop­ulist right—consider the pop­u­lar­i­ty of the tele­vi­sion pro­gram Cor­ner Gas, a show that traf­fics heav­i­ly in a nos­tal­gia for rur­al small-town life and the way it has been com­mem­o­rat­ed and insti­tu­tion­al­ized by the Saskatchewan Par­ty gov­ern­ment (“Pre­mier Brad Wall”). Yet this long­ing for the past is absent in the dis­course of the New Saskatchewan, where the agrar­i­an past is dead and gone while the future built on oil is just around the cor­ner. This tem­po­ral­i­ty is the key spa­tial, polit­i­cal, cul­tur­al, and affec­tive con­flict of the New Saskatchewan: the simul­ta­ne­ous rejec­tion of and long­ing for an agrar­i­an social­ist and com­mu­nal past with­in the indus­tri­al cap­i­tal­ist present and com­ing oil future.

7-1-3-1_zink_cultivatingweb

  1. Zink, "Cul­ti­vat­ing," Oxen to Oil

 

This ten­sion is clear in Zink’s pho­to­graph “Cul­ti­vat­ing” and its visu­al jux­ta­po­si­tion of the oil and oxen of Zink’s title. In the fore­ground are two near­ly iden­ti­cal half-tonne trucks, while the back­ground is dom­i­nat­ed by a mur­al of hors­es plow­ing and cul­ti­vat­ing a field of wheat. How­ev­er, the pho­to evokes more than the lit­er­al fore­ground­ing of oil over oxen and the over­tak­ing of the past by a present direct­ed toward an oily future. The mur­al also traf­fics in a nos­tal­gic mode in this small oil town as a com­mem­o­ra­tion of the pre-indus­tri­al past. The open­ness of the field con­trasts the brick wall, which fills the frame and blocks out Saskatchewan’s land­scape. With­in this jux­ta­po­si­tion, opti­mism and nos­tal­gia cir­cu­late with­in the pho­to­graph between mur­al and truck. Opti­mism is not just the domain of oil futures but, as the mur­al reminds us, was also the key moti­va­tor of the first wave of immi­grants and home­stead­ers who came to “the last, best West” on Laurier’s promise of land and pros­per­i­ty. Nos­tal­gia oper­ates here in ser­vice of the opti­mism that cir­cu­lates with­in the affec­tive econ­o­my of the New Saskatchewan. Nos­tal­gia in the New Saskatchewan is not a long­ing for a bet­ter past, but rather instead the long­ing for the feel­ing of a bet­ter future. Nos­tal­gia and opti­mism feed into each oth­er. We long for opti­mism.

 

7-1-3-6_zink_adrians-trailerweb2. Zink "Adrian's Trail­er," Oxen to Oil

7-1-3-2_zink_the-crush-kitchenweb3. Zink "The Crush Kitchen," Oxen to Oil

7-1-3-4_zink_drilling-rigweb4. Zink "Drilling Rig," Oxen to Oil

The cir­cu­la­tion of the future-ori­ent­ed opti­mism is grad­u­al­ly unstuck from the New Saskatchewan as the past-ori­ent­ed nos­tal­gia over­takes the affec­tive economies of the pho­tographs. “Adrian’s Trail­er” inverts “Cul­ti­vat­ing,” as the horse appears as the only object in focus. “The Crush Kitchen” could be mis­tak­en as an archival pho­to of the quin­tes­sen­tial mid-cen­tu­ry prairie kitchen if not for the inclu­sion of con­tem­po­rary flu­o­res­cent bulbs hang­ing above the kitchen sink. “Drilling Rig” reimag­ines the hors­es plow­ing the sur­face of the fields in “Cul­ti­vat­ing” as huge mechan­i­cal pump­jacks drilling deep below the sur­face. These pho­tos do not mere­ly depict the clean and easy move­ment from old Saskatchewan to New Saskatchewan, from agri­cul­tur­al dust bowl stag­na­tion to indus­tri­al oil pros­per­i­ty. In both the visu­al fram­ing and the affec­tive cir­cu­la­tion, Oxen to Oil reminds us of the old cliché that as much as things may change, they still seem to stay the same.

Zink’s pho­tographs remind us of the stag­na­tion that under­pins the New Saskatchewan and its oil economies. Oxen to Oil unsticks opti­mism from the New Saskatchewan and in its place re-sticks that which it tries to avoid: nos­tal­gia. The black-and-white colour of Oxen to Oil casts an almost death­ly pal­lor over the whole series, as if the lives depict­ed there have been drained of the opti­mistic promise of the New Saskatchewan. Here the New Saskatchewan begins to almost take on a Pleas­antville-esque aes­thet­ic: while the promise of colour in that film sug­gest­ed a kind of mod­erni­sa­tion of 1950s mid­dle Amer­i­ca, the drain­ing of colour—from the typ­i­cal­ly vibrant skies, the lush green of the grass, and the vibrant col­ors of the kitchen mag­nets in Zink’s photographs—suggests almost a turn back­ward, that the promise of pros­per­i­ty by neolib­er­al cap­i­tal­ism, instead of pro­vid­ing life, pro­vides the slow death of prairie cul­ture. Nos­tal­gia drains the New Saskatchewan of life. Oxen to Oil thus does not wax nos­tal­gic about the loss of an ide­al­ized past that nev­er was, but instead mobi­lizes nos­tal­gia, as Zink writes, to “urge […] view­ers to con­sid­er the com­plex­i­ties of rur­al com­mu­ni­ties’ entan­gle­ment with the oil indus­try, and the form and con­se­quences of place-mak­ing in the oil econ­o­my” (Zink, Oxen). In the oil and affec­tive economies of the New Saskatchewan, this opti­mistic and oily place-mak­ing is not with­out con­se­quences: the price of oil is noto­ri­ous­ly volatile and economies built on oil rev­enues boom and bust with fright­en­ing fre­quen­cy. These busts do more than wreak hav­oc on the econ­o­my; they affect the very peo­ple that oily place-mak­ing is sup­posed to help.

7-1-3-7_zink_hunger-strikeweb5. Zink "Hunger Strike," Oxen to Oil

7-1-3-3_zink_elaine-and-terryweb6. Zink "Elaine and Ter­ry," Oxen and Oil

Oily place-mak­ing and unfet­tered opti­mism has human costs. In “Hunger Strike,” Zink is inter­est­ed specif­i­cal­ly in its effects on Indige­nous pop­u­la­tions and cul­tures in Saskatchewan. “Hunger Strike” doc­u­ments the phys­i­cal resis­tance of Char­maine Stick, a woman from Onion Lake Cree Nation, to the re-elec­tion of Chief Wal­lace Fox and the effects of oil on her com­mu­ni­ty (CTV Saska­toon). Accord­ing to one report, Stick believes not only that the elec­tion was fixed, but that under Chief Fox’s lead­er­ship, over $500 mil­lion in oil rev­enues were mis­man­aged while the mem­bers of the band lived in pover­ty (Sper­ling). Stick’s hunger strike is an affec­tive reminder of Canada’s pol­i­cy of the forced star­va­tion of Indige­nous peo­ples dur­ing the set­tle­ment of the West, doc­u­ment­ed recent­ly by James Daschuk in Clear­ing the Plains. Only now instead of being forced to starve because of agri­cul­tur­al set­tle­ment, Stick’s star­va­tion occurs because of the effects of oil. While such a demon­stra­tion obvi­ous­ly inspires feel­ings of anger, sad­ness, and per­haps even pity, it reminds us of the com­plex and con­test­ed rela­tion­ship that set­tlers and Indige­nous pop­u­la­tions have with the land. Onion Lake is only a 30-minute dri­ve north of Lloy­d­min­ster in Treaty 6 ter­ri­to­ry, where the agri­cul­ture-themed refrig­er­a­tor mag­nets of “Elaine and Ter­ry” place the pho­to­graph. This is not a mere­ly a sto­ry of Euro­pean set­tlers com­ing to the West and col­o­niz­ing Indige­nous peo­ples, but more­over a com­men­tary on the com­plex rela­tion­ship between oil and agri­cul­ture and the high emo­tion­al and mate­r­i­al stakes when oil is allowed to gov­ern the cul­tur­al and affec­tive economies of a place.

The sto­ry and image of Char­maine Stick on her hunger strike leaves open a num­ber of ques­tions about the kinds of polit­i­cal actions Zink wants her view­ers to con­sid­er against such oil affec­tiv­i­ties. Return­ing again to the image of Stick on strike, a strik­ing com­po­si­tion emerges. On the left of the pho­to­graph, the Onion Lake Cree Nation sign frames pow­er lines stretch­ing across an emp­ty land­scape; on the right, new build­ings and the ubiq­ui­tous white half-tonne truck emerge from the land­scape. Caught in the mid­dle of all this—in the mid­dle of nos­tal­gia for agri­cul­ture, opti­mism for a neolib­er­al future, the rav­ages of the oil econ­o­my on the land, the pow­er lines that were once a sym­bol of rur­al modernization—is Char­maine Stick, the umbrel­la in her hand pro­tect­ing her from the rain while she pro­tects her com­mu­ni­ty from pover­ty and cor­rup­tion. The hunger strike occu­pies a mid­dle place between agri­cul­ture and oil and emerges as one place from which a pol­i­tics against neolib­er­al­ism, the New Saskatchewan, and oil can be mobi­lized.

Stick’s polit­i­cal action is an exer­cise in opti­mism. In putting her body on the line, Stick must remain opti­mistic about the effects of her hunger strike. If she did not believe it would work, would she do it at all? An anti-oil pol­i­tics can emerge from this opti­mism and from being open to the pos­si­bil­i­ty that the future might be dif­fer­ent than the present in ways that we can­not expect. The nos­tal­gic impulse of Oxen and Oil unsticks opti­mism from the New Saskatchewan, allow­ing opti­mism to stick else­where. As the his­to­ry of Saskatchewan shows, opti­mism is rather indis­crim­i­nate about where it sticks. Insist­ing on the mobil­i­ty of opti­mism and the open­ness of its pos­si­bil­i­ties, instead of demand­ing that it stick to one object or anoth­er, would allow for the imag­in­ing of a future that is tru­ly open to new pos­si­bil­i­ties. Remain­ing open is the only way anoth­er Saskatchewan may be able to emerge.

Finding Home

In an essay pub­lished for the occa­sion of Saskatchewan’s cen­ten­ni­al in 2005, Mark Abley observes that many places across Cana­da, sep­a­rat­ed not only by kilo­me­tres but by cul­tures, are char­ac­ter­ized by the fact that their pop­u­la­tions leave for large urban cen­tres: “New­found­land, Cape Bre­ton Island, Gaspésie, Saskatchewan: the his­to­ry of all these places sug­gests that Cana­da requires a mythol­o­gy of depar­ture” (Abley 357). Rarely are Saskatchewan and the Mar­itimes thought togeth­er in the cul­tur­al imag­i­nary of Cana­da, let alone are both char­ac­ter­ized as hav­ing the same mythol­o­gy. Yet in the pho­tographs of Saskatchewan by Cape Bre­ton-born Vera Saltz­man, this mythol­o­gy of depar­ture col­laps­es in on itself in her search for a place to call home. While Zink’s pho­tos use nos­tal­gia crit­i­cal­ly to mobi­lize opti­mism in the name of an anti-oil pol­i­tics, Saltzman’s series trans.plant rev­els in the long­ing and belong­ing of nos­tal­gia to col­lapse the dis­tinc­tions between region­al places, to place Saskatchewan and Cape Bre­ton on the sur­face side-by-side.

By sug­gest­ing that Saltzman’s pho­tographs con­nect Saskatchewan and Cape Bre­ton, I am bring­ing her pho­tographs into dia­logue with Elspeth Probyn’s work on space and nos­tal­gia. Per­haps more than any oth­er affect with­in the New Saskatchewan, nos­tal­gia is par­tic­u­lar­ly adept not only at cir­cu­lat­ing feel­ings across time but across space as well. As Probyn reminds us, nos­tal­gia is not just sim­ply a long­ing for any past, but, as its Greek ety­mol­o­gy sug­gests, is also “a painful yearn­ing to return home” (Hofer qtd. in Probyn 114). Probyn traces the geneal­o­gy of nos­tal­gia as a term that “begins its con­cep­tu­al career as a dis­crete objec­tive state, is [then] pathol­o­gized, and then falls under the scruti­ny of psy­chol­o­gy and psy­cho­analy­sis to be inte­ri­or­ized as a form of neu­ro­sis” (115-6). No longer restrict­ed to psy­cho­log­i­cal dis­cours­es, nos­tal­gia, she notes, is free to cir­cu­late in new cul­tur­al economies. In these cul­tur­al economies, nos­tal­gia allows us to recon­fig­ure the lines that move from mem­o­ry to cul­ture and past to present, spa­tial­iz­ing a giv­en economy’s affects:

Nos­tal­gia [recon­fig­ured] not as a guar­an­tee of mem­o­ry but pre­cise­ly as an errant log­ic that always goes astray. Nos­tal­gia per­formed in that emp­ty dimen­sion of child­hood freed of its moor­ings in time. Nos­tal­gia as the impos­si­bil­i­ty of plac­ing true ori­gins; nos­tal­gia for an irre­triev­able child­hood. A per­fid­i­ous use that the­o­ret­i­cal­ly and affec­tive­ly con­structs a space of exper­i­men­ta­tion and upsets the space and time of child­hood, the nat­u­ral­ness of het­ero­sex­u­al and gen­er­a­tional order­ing. (103)

Probyn’s reimag­in­ing of nos­tal­gia as an affect that can unset­tle space and time runs counter to the dis­trust Zink has for nos­tal­gia in her own pho­tographs. This artic­u­la­tion of nos­tal­gia not as some­thing to be avoid­ed because of its apoliti­ciza­tion, but rather as a struc­ture of feel­ing to be embraced that scram­bles chronol­o­gy and pro­duces its object, gives us the pos­si­bil­i­ty of open­ing up an object to imag­ine bet­ter presents and futures. When the present is no longer behold­en to a sim­ple chronol­o­gy it can shift and change and be reimag­ined (117-8). The past and present do not occur chrono­log­i­cal­ly but instead are placed spa­tial­ly beside each oth­er on the sur­face.

7-1-3-09_saltzman_veraweb7. Saltz­man "Pho­to 9," trans plant

7-1-3-10_saltzman_veraweb8. Saltz­man "Pho­to 10," trans plant

Per­haps unex­pect­ed­ly then, Saltzman’s pho­tographs, in their attempt to spa­tial­ize her child­hood home in Cape Bre­ton with­in the Saskatchewan land­scape, may point the way towards the open-end­ed pol­i­tics that Zink search­es for in her pho­tog­ra­phy, a pol­i­tics that scram­bles the neat tele­olo­gies of the New Saskatchewan and its oily affec­tive economies. In her search for what she calls her “pri­mal land­scape,” an attempt to pro­duce pho­tographs of Saskatchewan that remind her of Cape Bre­ton, Saltz­man pro­duces pho­tographs that are remark­able in their abil­i­ty to col­lapse spa­tial­i­ties and tem­po­ral­i­ties (Saltz­man). In Pho­to 09 she reimag­ines a grain ele­va­tor as a “prairie light­house” and in Pho­to 10 she turns a lake into an ocean vista (Saltz­man). Though the province does have a sin­gle light­house in the small town of Cochin, there are no oceans in Saskatchewan. We are the only province with no nat­ur­al bor­ders, and with Alber­ta one of Canada’s only land-locked provinces. As the hori­zon of the water in Pho­to 10 recedes, it meets up with clouds. Or are they the shad­ow of hills? The nar­row depth of field makes it impos­si­ble to tell. The pho­to shifts. Saltzman’s pho­to moves. At one moment we are in Saskatchewan, the hills on the oth­er side of the water like­ly the hills of the Qu’Appelle Val­ley where Saltz­man lives. The next, we are trans­plant­ed back to Cape Bre­ton, to Saltzman’s home, the clouds obscur­ing what should have been an infi­nite ocean hori­zon. Saltzman’s nar­row depth of field upsets the clear lines of spa­tial­i­ty and tem­po­ral­i­ty between Saskatchewan now and Cape Bre­ton in Saltzman’s past. We are not quite sure where or even when we are. Are we still in the New Saskatchewan, or are we some­where else entire­ly?

The place­less­ness of water in Saltzman’s pho­tographs chal­lenges the nar­ra­tive of oil-based excep­tion­al­ism that runs through the New Saskatchewan. If oil is the sig­ni­fi­er of neolib­er­al progress with­in the New Saskatchewan, then is it real­ly so sur­pris­ing that its cul­tur­al and polit­i­cal oth­er, the object that chal­lenges the hege­mo­ny of oil, may indeed be some­thing as sim­ple and com­mon as water? There is polit­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ty in tak­ing seri­ous­ly this kind of apho­ris­tic claim. Like the inter­dig­i­tat­ing of Sedgwick’s para­noid and repar­a­tive posi­tions, oil and water inter­min­gle in the cul­tur­al, polit­i­cal, and eco­nom­ic land­scapes of the New Saskatchewan with­out ever tru­ly emul­si­fy­ing. In Saltzman’s pho­tographs, water col­laps­es space and scram­bles tem­po­ral­i­ties. In search­ing for places that remind her of her child­hood home, Saltz­man is often drawn to water—to lakes, streams, sloughs, pud­dles, and snow. She is drawn to these loca­tions because they remind her of home. Water has no tele­ol­o­gy; its val­ue is in its cycling and recy­cling where­as oil’s val­ue is in its abil­i­ty to be burned. Oil ends. Water does not, unless oil makes it unus­able. Water is a place of depar­ture, a place that trans­plants Saltz­man and her view­ers else­where, to anoth­er place, anoth­er time. Water is nos­tal­gic, a site of long­ing, the place of what Probyn might call Saltzman’s irre­triev­able child­hood. If, as Probyn argues, nos­tal­gia can recon­fig­ure tem­po­ral­i­ties, then the nos­tal­gic impulse toward water in Saltzman’s pho­tographs has the poten­tial to scram­ble and move past the progress that under­pins so much of the rhetoric of the New Saskatchewan.

Water is also the site of envi­ron­men­tal activism in Saskatchewan, West­ern Cana­da, and else­where in the world. The dan­ger that oil pos­es to water mobi­lizes actions against off-shore drilling. The dev­as­tat­ing effects to the envi­ron­ment cat­alyze pub­lic out­rage when oil tankers spill their car­go into the ocean. The pro­found­ly unwa­tery nature of the tail­ings ponds and tar sands devel­op­ments that fill north­ern Alber­ta, cap­tured by pho­tog­ra­phers such as Edward Bur­tyn­sky, mobi­lize us to act against the human dam­age they have done to Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties’ water sup­plies. Water, a sub­stance that is nec­es­sary to life, is active­ly cor­rupt­ed by oil. That Saltz­man returns to water in her attempts at place-mak­ing is no sim­ple act; her work is a reminder of the neces­si­ty of water to the flour­ish­ing of com­mu­ni­ties and publics, a reminder that water sus­tained the crops of our agrar­i­an social­ist past, and a reminder that oil is not the only tech­nol­o­gy that con­nects peo­ple. In Pho­to 09, her prairie light­house looks over a rail­way track instead of over an ocean, a reminder that the small towns that pep­per the Saskatchewan land­scape are locat­ed not just at sites where oil flows, but also where rivers flow and where the rail­way bends. When con­sid­ered along­side Zink’s Oxen to Oil, Saltzman’s pho­tos remind us that we can make a home with­out oil. Beyond the pol­i­tics of oil, of oily affec­tive economies, of neolib­er­al cap­i­tal­ism and the New Saskatchewan, is water.

7-1-3-04_saltzman_veraweb9. Saltz­man "Pho­to 04," trans plant

7-1-3-05_saltzman_veraweb10. Saltz­man "Pho­to 05," trans plant

7-1-3-06_saltzman_veraweb11. Saltz­man "Pho­to 06," trans plant

7-1-3-07_saltzman_veraweb12. Saltz­man "Pho­to 07," trans plant

7-1-3-08-saltzman_veraweb13. Saltz­man "Pho­to  08," trans plant 

7-1-3-11_saltzman_worldchampsweb

14. Zink "World Champs," Ghosts and Dai­ly News

The Affective Politics of Water

Is Saskatchewan real­ly mov­ing toward the future or is it reced­ing qui­et­ly into the past? Saltzman’s pho­tos make such a ques­tion dif­fi­cult to answer. When Saltz­man turns her gaze towards objects—cars, hous­es, build­ings, play structures—they are worn and ragged (Pho­tos 04-08). Paint chips off the sid­ing. The car’s tires are flat, its body rust­ed, aban­doned some­where in a field. Zink’s series Ghosts and Dai­ly News sug­gests the same decay: the paint is wear­ing off the build­ings; the only signs of human life in the pho­tographs are found in the mem­o­ries of Carl Olson, the 1947 world cham­pi­on sad­dle bronc, and Mark Roy, the 1992 world cham­pi­on steer wrestler. These signs assert, as Zink sug­gests, that things do hap­pen in Saskatchewan, that these small towns that pep­per the land­scape con­tribute to the world, not just in the rel­a­tive­ly recent past of these sports tri­umphs but in the ongo­ing present (Zink, Ghosts). These signs are metonymic of com­mu­ni­ties that con­tin­ue to make homes in Saskatchewan, com­mu­ni­ties that are affect­ed by the boom-and-bust cycles of oil economies and their envi­ron­men­tal costs. Despite the rhetoric that things can be bet­ter in a New Saskatchewan that runs on oil, the increased speed of oil economies and the demands that we must always progress into a pros­per­ous future built of oil often for­get the human and envi­ron­men­tal costs that such a future holds.

In the hege­mon­ic affec­tive economies of the New Saskatchewan the future under oil is cast as pros­per­ous and opti­mistic while our agrar­i­an social­ist past is remem­bered, at best, through a naïve nos­tal­gia that leads to cul­tur­al, eco­nom­ic, and polit­i­cal stag­na­tion. Yet, as I have tried to show here through a dis­cus­sion of the affec­tive economies of Zink’s and Saltzman’s pho­tographs, nos­tal­gia need not nec­es­sary be naïve and regres­sive. Nos­tal­gia, freed from its patho­log­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal ori­gins, cir­cu­lates and wan­ders with­in the New Saskatchewan, unstick­ing the opti­mism from oil, remind­ing us of its human and envi­ron­men­tal costs, and mobi­liz­ing a watery affec­tive pol­i­tics embed­ded with­in envi­ron­men­tal and social activism. The rain that falls down on Char­maine Stick in her hunger strike against the effects of oil on her com­mu­ni­ty falls too on ponds and lakes that remind Saltz­man of her ocean-side home and on the grain fields that were once the defin­ing fea­ture of Saskatchewan’s cul­ture and econ­o­my. In con­sid­er­ing the affec­tive pol­i­tics of water, I advo­cate here not for a regres­sive return to the past, but rather for a future that remem­bers the apho­ris­tic oppo­si­tion water has to oil and the neces­si­ty of water to a flour­ish­ing phys­i­cal, his­tor­i­cal, and affec­tive life.

Works Cited

Abley, Mark. “Saskatchewan’s Dias­po­ra.” Per­spec­tives of Saskatchewan. Ed. Jene M. Porter. Win­nipeg: U of Man­i­to­ba P, 2009. Print.

Ahmed, Sara. The Cul­tur­al Pol­i­tics of Emo­tion. 2nd ed. Edin­burgh: U of Edin­burgh P, 2014. Print.

Brown, Elspeth H. and Thy Phu. “Intro­duc­tion.” Feel­ing Pho­tog­ra­phy. Eds. Elspeth H. Brown and Thy Phu. Durham and Lon­don: Duke UP, 2014. 1-25. Print.

CTV Saska­toon. “Onion Lake woman hold­ing hunger strike over her uncle’s re-elec­tion”. CTV Saska­toon. 27 June 2014. Web. 14 Dec. 2015. <http://​saska​toon​.ctvnews​.ca/​o​n​i​o​n​-​l​a​k​e​-​w​o​m​a​n​-​h​o​l​d​i​n​g​-​h​u​n​g​e​r​-​s​t​r​i​k​e​-​o​v​e​r​-​h​e​r​-​u​n​c​l​e​-​s​-​r​e​-​e​l​e​c​t​i​o​n​-​1​.​1​8​9​0​080>.

Daschuk, James. Clear­ing the Plains: Dis­ease, Pol­i­tics of Star­va­tion, and the Loss of Abo­rig­i­nal Life. Regi­na: U of Regi­na P, 2013. Print.

Eisler, Dale. “The Saskatchewan Myth.” The Heavy Hand of His­to­ry: Inter­pret­ing Saskatchewan’s Past. Ed. Gre­go­ry P. Marchildon. Regi­na: CPRC Press, 2005. 67-85. Print.

Enoch, Simon. “The ‘New Saskatchewan’: Neolib­er­al Renew­al or Redux?” Social­ist Stud­ies 7.1-2 (Spring/Fall 2011): 191-215. Web.

Klein, Nao­mi. The Shock Doc­trine: The Rise of Dis­as­ter Cap­i­tal­ism. Toron­to: Knopf, 2007. Print.

Pre­mier Brad Wall Pro­claims April 13, 2009 ‘Cor­ner Gas Day’ in Saskatchewan.” 6 Apr. 2009. Web. 15 Dec. 2015. <http://​www​.saskatchewan​.ca/​g​o​v​e​r​n​m​e​n​t​/​n​e​w​s​-​a​n​d​-​m​e​d​i​a​/​2​0​0​9​/​a​p​r​i​l​/​0​6​/​p​r​e​m​i​e​r​-​b​r​a​d​-​w​a​l​l​-​p​r​o​c​l​a​i​m​s​-​a​p​r​i​l​-​1​3​-​2​0​0​9​-​c​o​r​n​e​r​-​g​a​s​-​d​a​y​-​i​n​-​s​a​s​k​a​t​c​h​e​wan>.

Probyn, Elspeth. Out­side Belong­ings. New York and Lon­don: Rout­ledge, 1996. Print.

Sedg­wick, Eve. Touch­ing Feel­ing: Affect, Ped­a­gogy, Per­for­ma­tiv­i­ty. Durham and Lon­don: Duke UP, 2003. Print.

Sper­ling, Jill. “Hunger Strike on Onion Lake First Nation.” PA Now. 27 June 2014. Web. 5 Decem­ber 2015. <http://​panow​.com/​a​r​t​i​c​l​e​/​4​5​9​0​6​9​/​h​u​n​g​e​r​-​s​t​r​i​k​e​-​o​n​i​o​n​-​l​a​k​e​-​f​i​r​s​t​-​n​a​t​ion>.

Image Notes

Fig­ure 1. Zink, Valerie. "Cul­ti­vat­ing." Oxen to Oil.

Fig­ure 2. Zink. "Adrian’s Trail­er." Oxen to Oil.

Fig­ure 3. Zink. "Crush Kitchen." Oxen to Oil.

Fig­ure 4. Zink. "Drilling Rig." Oxen to Oil.

Fig­ure 5. Zink. "Hunger Strike." Oxen to Oil.

Fig­ure 6. Zink. "Elaine and Ter­ry." Oxen to Oil.

Fig­ure 7. Saltz­man, Vera. “Pho­to 09.” trans.plant.

Fig­ure 8. Saltz­man. “Pho­to 10.” trans.plant.

Fig­ure 9. Saltz­man. “Pho­to 04.” trans.plant.

Fig­ure 10. Saltz­man. “Pho­to 05.” trans.plant.

Fig­ure 11. Saltz­man. “Pho­to 06.” trans.plant.

Fig­ure 12. Saltz­man. “Pho­to 07.” trans.plant.

Fig­ure 13. Saltz­man. “Pho­to 08.” trans.plant.

Fig­ure 14. Zink. “World Champs.” Ghosts and Dai­ly News.