Brown Homestead, St. Catharines, ON
November 19-21, 2020
Derek Knight / Shawn Serfas / Catherine Parayre / Nicholas Hauck
A River Rises was an art residency that took place on November 19-21, 2020 at the Brown Homestead, the oldest house in St. Catharines, Ontario, just from across Short Hills Provincial Park. We were welcomed there by Andrew and Jennifer Humeniuk from the John Brown Heritage Foundation. Participants were Derek Knight, Shawn Serfas, Catherine Parayre, and Nicholas Hauck. The title we chose for the residency is the title of a creative-writing text by Derek which served as preparatory material before we met. Our intention was to listen to one another as each responded to the text, then create individually and collectively in any way we wished.
On November 19-21, the weather was exceptionally mild, which allowed us to spend time outside, on the Homestead property or along Twelve Mile Creek at Short Hills. Earlier in the week, Brock University had announced the sale of the Rodman Hall Art Centre. The work we accomplished during these three days at the Homestead may be described as a reflection on this loss.
The photographs we show here document these three days as well as our creative process. The texts include Derek’s “A River Rises,” as well as two responses composed during the residency. Shawn’s video records the last day of the residency and the performance by which we collected our written and visual works in two jars and filled a third jar with water from Twelve Mile Creek before depositing them in a hole dug by Shawn on the Homestead property. While the photographs, the texts, and the video attempt to catch the spirit of the moment, an experimental book designed by Bernhard Cella, Salon für Kunstbuch, Austria commits our work to memory. Our inverted sculpture on the property of the Brown Homestead memorializes our time there.
Acknowledgments: Andrew and Jennifer Humeniuk, John Brown Heritage Foundation
"A River Rises" gallery
A River Rises / Shawn Serfas
A River Rises, excerpts from an unfinished novel
Derek J.J. Knight
The Air Ghana jet touched down in Accra at 4:10 pm. The Harmattan heat blowing from the Sahara quickly enveloped the interior of the aircraft as the rear door opened. The perimeter fence shimmered in the noonday heat and the hum of traffic floated across the concrete apron, while an Aeroflot jet taxied lazily towards the runway. Two dogs lay prostrate in the shadow of the low slung, one-story terminal building, its peaked entrance glazed from floor to ceiling. On the airfield side, where the customs office was, the glass-louvered windows captured any hint of breeze and with it the smell of aviation fuel while the ceiling fans churned furiously to circulate the otherwise dead air. The chatter of the customs agents and a single air-conditioning unit labouring in a nearby office offset the hum of the neon strip lighting. An electric typewriter came to life behind a door marked “Station Manager” and a telephone rang incessantly. The newly installed backlit advertising display promoted direct flights to London on BOAC’s new VC-10 jet as well as Tusker cigarettes with their familiar cameo of an elephant head.
Three days before John had received his travel documents along with a secure directive that cautioned him about individuals who were threatening the dam operation with sabotage. The drive was four or five hours along poorly laid asphalt roads that served as the main axis into the savannah and forested foothills of the Volta River valley. The infrastructure of the Akosombo dam, from its reinforced shale embankments and generators to the high-tension wires that crisscross the landscape in the direction of the coast, was the symbol of industrial progress, where before the rituals of village life had shaped generations of residents working the land, harvesting fruit and fishing the river. The once tall stands of teak forests of the Ashanti, now depleted by overharvesting and the lure of profitable timber exports, competed with the skeletal frames of the electrical pylons that extended towards the coast. While the elephants disappeared a generation ago, vultures still undertake their watchful duty, alert to the small rodents in the underbrush or those that meet their untimely end at the hands of a speeding vehicle, only to be eviscerated and their entrails picked over in a fit of gluttony. John’s car, a comfortable dark blue Humber Super Snipe driven by a hired driver, made its way along the potholed road, until the foothills, where the newly laid asphalt engineered by the Russian construction company building the hotel overlooking the dam, allowed the driver to accelerate through the corners and put the car through its paces.
Relaxing on the veranda of the rest house, John could see the shale face of the dam beyond the clearing, its perimeter brightly lit. He was content in the knowledge that the project had taken less than five years to complete. When he had first visited to survey the lush valley, he was struck by the density and height of the trees. How could one measure one’s own life against such a verdant demonstration of nature, he thought? He was reminded of the apple tree he had meant to plant in the garden of his summer home overlooking the Thames River above Kingston, but never had, dismissing this now as a trite whim, or romantic longing for another kind of connection against which to measure his own life and those of his children. In the consortium’s eyes he was the visionary who would transform this valley into a vast reservoir, in fact the largest freshwater lake on the African Continent and by surface area in the world, that would become the generator of a nation’s future economic transformation.
Several years earlier Kwame Nkrumah, the first President of an independent Ghana, had received the Chinese Vice Premier, Zhou Enlai. It was a January day in 1964 when the entourage pulled up at Osu Castle where Nkrumah had retreated a few weeks earlier in the wake of an assassination attempt. According to the notes taken at the time President Nkrumah expressed his appreciation for the reception he received two years earlier on his first diplomatic visit to China. Vice Premier Zhou Enlai was a brilliant man who had mastered English and French as a University student and whose pragmatic sense of the world was informed by the Party’s new prospectus on détente. He represented a new generation of bureaucrat who was skilled in debate, committed to the Party’s platform and used his knowledge of Western literature and philosophy to advantage. The first of his three visits to Africa, he was intent on building relationships which could help African nations find prosperity in a post-colonial world with the help of Chinese investment. The quid pro quo meant offering support for a seat at the United Nations, denouncing the two-nation status brought about by the secession of Taiwan while embracing the Chinese model of liberation from colonialism. Nkrumah did not beat around the bush when he asked for China’s help in Ghana’s Seven-Year Development Plan. Zhou Enlai had read Nkrumah’s book and was well aware of the President’s desire to move towards the model of a centrally planned economy. The goal of an all-African federal government had been given voice at the Addis Ababa Conference, but this was years away from fruition. However, the Organization of African Unity was a passion of Nkrumah’s which he saw as an instrument of African sovereignty that Zhou Enlai also envisioned strategically as a way of supporting Nkrumah.
The water was like glass, the forested hillside reflected on its surface. A lone egret flew close to the surface in search of fish, its wings moving in a slow syncopated motion. The sun had just risen, and the early morning rousing of the roosters could still be heard echoing across the valley. The water had risen significantly since the Spring when the pouring of the last sluices and the generator plant walls were finished after an intensive construction phase. The river reflected its new expanding boundaries, which had crept up the sides of the valley consuming forest and village alike. He loved the quiet rectitude that this silent expanding body of water signified and could feel its power as its eddies began to wash beneath the parapet on which he stood. The source of the river hundreds of miles removed from this spot, in Burkino Faso, had fed this moment of anticipation and the dream of six turbines that would generate enough electricity to transform the coastal cities, power Kaiser’s proposed aluminum smelters and establish an electrical network that would also help power the oil industry in the Niger Delta in neighbouring Nigeria and perhaps beyond. John, a civil engineer, was responsible for bringing the dam online and making it operational. He had spent a considerable amount of time in the last five years watching the heavy equipment prepare the ground and move trillions of cubic feet of earth to form the largest structure of its type in Africa. He had never warmed to the Chinese management group who was responsible for the budget that enabled the project to move forward. Akosombo was their testing ground for a long term overseas project that would reap benefits at a time when African unity –its period of decolonialization– was the one agenda item to which China could contribute generously and satisfy its own desire to influence a continent undergoing radical transformation. John felt conflicted as he observed the pattern along the banks of the Volta river in which villages were uprooted and resettled but he had convinced himself that the prestige of this engineering marvel would eventually supersede the dissidence of those who has been directly affected and displaced by the plan.
October 14, 2020
Angel of the North, Gateshead, UK. Photo Nicholas Hauck
i. Whose Angel of History? or Who gets to write about what?
Let’s take stock
of the essential roles of catastrophe: condition
for image’s genesis & cliché’s destruction.
Is this the realism vs naturalism debate or
Adam Smith’s rising river?
D says there are three rhythms:
STEADY, ACTIVE, PASSIVE. What’s
the rhizome of this book?
How does function extract figure
from figurative, narrative, illustrative?
From Accra to Hanoi, ever since
Sputnik, a closed but unlimited cosmos.
Visual symbolisms where the struggle
with shadow is the only real struggle.
Not correspondence, but undecidability,
Indiscernibility. When photography is
haptic, it is guilty: a false
private identity, figuratively pessimistic &
figurally optimistic in not what
it means, but in how it functions.
ii. Whose Angel of History? or Whose Space is it Anyway?
Between the -al and the -ive,
something like the authenticity
meta-ink soon to be
Tactile sites &
a material collage of home-
stead. What I’m about to tell you,
friends… is suffix, is truth passing,
is present h(a)unting short
hills, is creek beds of imprints &
(About the process: The first poem is a hybrid found poem written during the residency. Some of the lines come from notes taken during Derek Knight’s opening remarks at the Brown Homestead on November 19, 2020, from Gilles Deleuze’s Francis Bacon, and from an old essay on Ed Ruscha. The second poem was written after the residency and is inspired by its creative activities and spaces.)
Sparrow fish dies on the edge of the sun.
This is the grieving water dropping from the dam, the water surging back. We talk about planting our thoughts in the ground, in a glass jar.
The abysses of the river are mourning; they echo our losses, the plight to lose a place.
Across the river is a horizontal waterfall. It tingles and tells us the repetitions of any story. Every few years, water submerges and levels the land as much as it heaves it like a sponge.
We grow, we catch our breath and wish to dig a hole that would stay, that would not drown in any river. We do not belong to the stream’s swirls. We own time and devastate it.
The field at the back of the house contains jewels and flotsam. We dive in our reflections yet remain untouched.