This is the blog for BC Time-Slip (The Empire Never Ended), the first phase of a larger inter-disciplinary artistic research project called The Skullcracker Suite. Drawing on the mythology, dances and art of the Kwakwaka’wakw peoples of British Columbia, the project’s title is a reference to Hox’hok, one of three giant cannibal birds of Kwakwaka’wakw legend. Hox’hok’s skull-cracking and brain-eating powers are imagined as a dramatic theatrical allegory for the interwoven process of colonial violence, indigenous resistance and the ‘metaphysics of predation’ that bind human and non-human beings in a system of mutual, ecological and entangled co-dependency. The project is underpinned by a metaphysical world-view, drawn from Amerindian ethnology, that recognises non-human beings as persons rather than things, one in which humans have kinship with non-human beings with whom they share environmental and co-operative intelligences. From this perspective, man may be a wolf to man, but a wolf is a person to a wolf. And like Hox’hok, all beings, supernatural or otherwise, compelled to eat their other-kin, are of the cannibal kind.

Conceived as a suite of movements culminating in a multi-media arts event, The Skullcracker Suite appeals to the possibility of collectively and co-operatively imagining ‘otherwise’ modes of existence-in-common that are reconciliatory and transformative of the traumagenic effects of colonial dominion, territorial dispossession and forced assimilation to Western modes of being, behaving and thinking. Using the Brazilian anthropologist Viveiros de Castro’s concepts of ‘cannibal metaphysics’, ‘multi-species perspectivism’ and his call for the permanent decolonization of thought, the project works through the theoretical and pragmatic overlaps between models of decolonization motivated by the critical deconstruction of Euro-centric ethnography and those emerging directly from Indigenous knowledge, anti-colonial resistance and non-Western modes of living, thinking and being. 

BC Time-Slip (The Empire Never Ended) began at Dynamo Arts Association in Vancouver, British Columbia in August 2016. For the duration of the one month residency I set up a special investigations bureau in the gallery, using it as the operational base for an inquiry into the story of the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick’s visit to Vancouver in 1972 to speak at a Science Fiction Convention, and his stay, after an attempted suicide, at the X-Kalay Foundation, a First Nations ex-con and addiction rehabilitation centre established by the inimitable raconteur, broadcaster and steadfast advocate of abstinence-based recovery, David Berner. The use of an Anglo-American author from the West Coast to begin a discussion about decolonization in British Columbia was a way to foreground my own identity as a white, British and European visitor whose ‘ancestors’ settled this territory over the last two centuries, and to foreground the paradox of discussing decolonization from a Euro-settler perspective.

Philip K. Dick’s 1964 novel Martian Time-Slip, after which this phase of the project was named, tells the story of a doomed UN Mars settlement project from the perspective of a schizophrenic repairman, Jack Bohlen, and a time-travelling autistic boy called Manfred. Manfred seems to be the only human on the planet able to communicate telepathically with the Bleekmen, a non-human indigenous people, reduced to servitude and abject poverty by the colonizing earthlings. The epistemological and moral uncertainties that plagued Dick throughout his life culminated in a series of visionary experiences in 1974, communicated to him by an entity he named VALIS (Vast Active Living Intelligence System) and exhaustively analysed in his posthumous work The Exegesis. Dick’s planetary colonization narratives, and his post 2-3-74 revelations that the Roman Empire had never actually ended and that we are all, unknowingly, trapped inside its Black Iron Prison, were used as critical-fictional devices to address the actual territorial dispossession of the First Peoples of what is now called Canada, and to ask how Euro-Canadian Settler populations understand their relationship to the legacies of imperialism and colonialism in the region.

During  the residency at Dynamo I read The Exegesis in relation to the inter-species cosmology of the First People of the Pacific North West in an attempt to find esoteric connections between a collapsed Western mind, grappling with its own culpability for the injustices committed by its ‘race’, and a vital, pantheistic cosmology gleaned from the ethnographic archives of the Kwakwaka’wakw peoples. The working out of these reflections was presented in a series of blackboard drawings produced in the Special Investigations Room over the duration of the show. During the Dynamo residency I also worked with the artists Grégoire Dupond and Stephanie Moran to produce a series of  photospheres based on events associated with Dick’s stay in Vancouver. This inquiry formed the pretext for a wider conversation about the role of artists, activists and intellectuals of Euro-Canadian, First Nations and Métis heritage, in processes of cultural decolonization in the region.

The material gathered from the 2016 residency and a second research visit to Vancouver in 2017 is currently being edited into a multi-channel video installation that will be exhibited in December 2018, marking the end of the suite’s first movement.

The Skullcracker Suite is supported by a Research Fellowship from The Leverhulme Trust.

Origin of the The Skullcracker Suite

The first plan for The Skullcracker Suite drawn in August 2015 on our return to the UK from British Columbia.

The Skullcracker Suite was conceived during a visit with my friend Steve Calvert in Powell River in the summer of 2015. Steve, whom I had not seen since 2002, when we had worked together on an event called Project VALIS, had been living for several years in Alert Bay, home of the ‘Namgis First Nation, documenting their potlatch ceremonies, and accompanying the Kwakwaka’wakw artist, hereditary chief, and indigenous activist Beau Dick* on his journey to the legislature of British Columbia to symbolically break a traditional copper and call The Crown by its true name, Raven.

Beau Dick at the BC Legislature, March 2013. Courtesy Steve Calvert

Back in 2000 Steve had audited a class I taught at Emily Carr College of Art and Design called The Sacred Revolution: Ethnographic Surrealism and the Sociology of the Sacred. The course was based on the writings of the French Surrealist philosopher Georges Bataille, whose book The Accursed Share contains an important section on the potlatch economy. Bataille described the potlatch  as a gift of rivalry between tribal chiefs, leading to ever greater destructions of material wealth. Traditional modes of non-productive expenditure like the potlatch represented for Bataille a form of socio-economic organization that maintained an intimate and primordial connection between art, community and the sacred. As such it seemed to him to offer a model counter-point to the individualistic, calculating and profane logics of modern capitalist economies.

During our few days together Steve told me many stories about his time in Alert Bay, about the genocidal policies of the Canadian government, still at work today in regions far from the metropolitan centres, and the politics of indigenous resurgence associated with Idle No More. He also told us about the vibrant culture of the Kwakwaka’wakw peoples of the region, their legends, theatre, music and the incredible stage-craft of the ceremonies he had attended.

Beau Dick summons the transformer. Courtesy Steve Calvert

Many of his stories had to do with the Hamatsa, a secret society, several members of which Steve had become friends with during his time in Alert Bay. One story, told to Steve by Beau, was particularly striking, reminding Steve of the secret society Bataille himself had founded in the 1930’s, Acéphale, which would meet in the woods outside Paris to perform mysterious sacrificial ceremonies at the foot of a sacred tree. In Beau’s story a young man who had strayed from his village is captured by a war party from a rival tribe and forced to become a slave. Eventually, having upset the chief in some way, it was decided that he would be sacrificed during the next winter dance ceremony. However, despite being decapitated, thrown in the fire, and taken out into the sea to be drowned, the slave refused to die. Eventually he is admitted into the tribe as one of its own. Steve had witnessed a performance of this story during Beau’s potlatch. After the slave had been symbolically stabbed three times, his decapitated head was made to roll dramatically across the floor of the Alert Bay big house before being magically reconnected with its owner. Although the technical virtuosity of the Kwakwaka’wakw ceremonial dances have been well-known to ethnographers and anthropologists since Franz Boas, such stories were new to me.

Image from Beau Dick’s Potlatch. Courtesy Steve Calvert

I was captivated by the thought of an artistic work combining the kind of Grand Guignol stage craft described by Steve, ritual dance, costume and music, designed to tell a contemporary story about the ongoing legacy of colonialism in the region and its cannibalistic, all-consuming character.

One of the most emblematic dances of the Hamatsa involves three giant cannibal birds who are the consorts of Baxbaxwalanuksiwe, ‘Man Eater at the North End of the World’. One of these birds, Huxhukw, is a giant crane, who cracks the skulls of men to eat their brains. The idea of a giant skull-cracking bird, eating human brains in the primordial forests of Northern Canada seemed like an image from an eco-horror movie. It also brought to mind other ceremonies and rites associated with deep winter, still alive in Europe and its colonies, like Mummers plays and the Krampus traditions in Alpine Europe. It also recalled that famous Christmas tale of toys coming to life and fighting mouse armies: E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Nutcracker and Mouse King, famously made into a ballet by Tchaikovsky in 1892.

Stage shot for Edward S. Curtis’ silent ethnographic-fiction about the Kwakwaka’wakw ‘In the Land of the Headhunter’, shot in Alert Bay in 1914, with members of the local community. It shows the three cannibal birds: Gwaxwgwakwalanuksiwe, a man-eating raven (right), Galuxwadzuwus, ‘Crooked-Beak of Heaven’ (centre) and Huxhukw (centre left), a supernatural crane that cracks the skulls of men to eat their brains.

In the UK the word nut is slang for head. To be “cracked in the head” or “nutty” means being crazy. What kind of crack pots and nut jobs would try to bring together the traditions of Kwakwaka’wakw winter dance ceremonies, inter-species and inter-planetary science-fiction, and the multinatural perspectivism of Amerindian philosophy with a mystical theatre of ritual sacrifice and subjective transformation? How would such a project work? What would it look like? And what would it do? These are the kinds of questions that The Skullcracker Suite was created to address.

* Beau’s untimely passing in March this year was not only an immense loss to his family, friends, colleagues and community, but to the wider artistic, environmentalist and activist culture in BC as a whole. He seems to have had a powerful influence on everyone came to know him, as this commemorative video made by his students shows.

Here’s a telling epithet for Beau by himself, spoken shortly after he performed the first copper-breaking ceremony in Victoria, from David Shebib and Davis Arthur Johnston’s mini-documentary on Beau’s copper-breakin protest ‘What Now?‘:

“All we can do at this point is create awareness. We’re in a predicament. We can’t be in denial. Our values have to shift. In our case, from a First Nations’ perspective, we have to get back to the old ways, to live in harmony and be in balance with nature, and Ma’ya’xala, the creator. In saying that, we have to get rid of the old ways in order to go back to the old ways, because we’ve been subdued for so long, we’re quite accustomed to it. If there’s any hope for us, and the rest of mankind, we have to shake those chains off and be able to grow. And young people have fresh young minds and they have abilities that us older people don’t. And as we pass the torch forward now it’s up to them to take on the responsibility as they grow up. This is their world too. Don’t be like us. Be better than us. That’s the only voice that I can send out to young people.”

Beau Dick (1955 -2017)

Passing for Human: PKD in Vancouver

Philip K. Dick arrived in Canada on February 16th, 1972, as guest of honour for the 2nd Vancouver Science Fiction Convention, an all-expenses-paid invitation, jointly sponsored by the science fiction societies of Simon Frazer University and the University of British Columbia. He was 43 years old, the author of 36 novels, and his life was in a mess. His fourth wife Nancy had recently left him, along with his second daughter Isa; his home in Santa Venetia had become a half-way house for the street kids, felons and junkies he had invited into his home; he had recently fallen in love with a street-smart “Dark Haired Girl” called Kathy; he had a serious amphetamine addiction; and four months before his trip to Canada, the safe in which he kept his most valuable papers and collections of sci-fi magazines had been mysteriously “blown up” in what seemed like a botched burglary attempt. Given the deepening dysfunction of his life in California, the invitation  arrived like a message from heaven.

Spurred by his love for Kathy and the promise of respectable literary recognition at last, he dived into writing for the first time in months. To Mike Bailey, the main organiser of VCON, Phil contributed a  personal profile in advance. Written in the third person, it concluded: “He is currently working day and night on his new novel simply called Kathy, named after the girl he is bringing with him to the Vancouver Science Fiction Convention. He had meant to bring with him someone representing the youth of America, but Kathy, he feels, represents more; all youth, all life to come in later time. The novel really does not exist as yet, except in his head, but Kathy does, and he hopes the people at the convention will welcome her and like her.” But Kathy had other ideas. At the last minute she traded her tickets for cash. Phil, dejected once again, took the plane to Vancouver alone, wearing an old raincoat and carrying a battered suitcase and a bible.

The convention, whose previous guest of honour had been Phil’s sci-fi colleague and fellow alumna from Berkeley High, Ursula Le Guin, was held at the Biltmore Motor Hotel in Mount Pleasant, Vancouver, home to the Biltmore Cabaret, which Phil visited shortly after checking in. The next day he attended a prestigious UBC Faculty Club luncheon in his honour, where he gave the first presentation of the essay he had been working on since receiving his invitation: The Android and the Human: A Contrast Between the Authentic Person and the Reflex Machine. Having received a standing ovation from faculty and students at UBC, Phil gave the talk again at the convention the following day, which was received enthusiastically once more. By the end of the second day, Phil had made up his mind to stay in Vancouver.

On the final day of the convention he met Jamis, a Math student from Simon Fraser university who fitted his beloved Dark Haired Girl archetype perfectly: young, emotionally damaged, frightened and full of half-crazy ideas and far-out dreams. They went out to the strip-clubs and bars in Gastown, dancing to Credence Clearwater Revival songs and chatting passionately about UFO’s, God, philosophy and the esoteric secrets of the ancient Egyptians. Inevitably, the new DHG seemed to be the one he had been searching for all his life. But only a few days after their meeting, fearing Phil’s emotional and amorous intensity, Jamis decided to return to her family home in a logging town on the northern coast of BC. Abandoned yet again by a woman he had hoped would bring spiritual salvation at last, Phil fell back into his “tomb world” of despair.

On the second day of the convention, having made public his desire to remain in Vancouver, Phil had been invited to stay with Michael Walsh, a journalist for the Vancouver Province, and his wife Susan, at their home in the city. Michael, who was 26 at the time, had made a name for himself popularizing the ideas of Marshall McLuhan. He was convinced that science fiction was about to be recognised as a serious literary genre. Susan was an avid sci-fi fan, who was more than happy to have such a formidable exponent of the art stay with them. Together Phil and the Walsh’s took in the tourist sights of Vancouver: English Bay, Stanley Park and the planetarium at the MacMillan Space Centre, where Phil was captivated by George Norris’s giant stainless steel crab sculpture.

The Walsh’s found Phil to be an amicable, bear-like character, who was immensely stimulating to be around intellectually. He was also prone to extreme and unpredictable mood swings, often triggered by perceived insults or sleights. He tended to speak in concepts, much as McLuhan did, and like the media-guru he was constantly sending probes into the psyches of those around him, seeking out their emotional blind-spots and moral contradictions. One evening, expecting Phil to respond positively, Michael played him the vinyl recording of McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage. After 10 minutes Phil begged him to turn it off, saying it sounded like the inside of his head.

Phil stayed on the Walsh’s couch for several days before finding his own rented apartment on Cornwall Avenue at Kits beach, close to the McMillan Space Centre and the giant crab. Although he continued to visit the Walsh’s and accompany them to dinner parties, the first blush of Vancouver was starting to fade. The new people he was meeting were mainly “executive hippies”, lots of long hair and dope, but untouched by the realities of addiction, poverty and the Vietnam War, happily raising families, driving new cars and living comfortably in high-rise apartments. Phil’s testing behaviour eventually started to wear on the Walsh’s. But it was Susan who bore the brunt of his manipulative personality. During dinner at a friend’s house, the host pulled Michael aside and asked if he realised that Phil was hitting on Susan. Yes, he said, but he didn’t mind because he knew Susan wasn’t interested. Susan was however beginning to feel the effects of Phil’s constant attention and flattery. “You do realise you’re falling in love with me”, he asked her at another party. “Yes, I guess I am” she replied. Although, like most of Phil’s relationships at the time, the infatuation remained entirely Platonic, his affection for Susan eventually spilled over into open hostility towards Michael who he accused of being a third-rate writer and unworthy of such a beautiful and intelligent wife. It became clear to the couple that his intention was to break up their relationship. Michael reacted angrily, as did Susan, and they told him to leave. This was the last time they would see him.

In a BBC radio interview from 2017 the Walsh’s reflected on Phil’s behaviour at the time. Susan likened his attention-seeking to that of a two-year old child who throws something to the ground, watches the adult pick it up, and then thinks “Look, I’m controlling them!” She also associated Phil’s behaviour with the personalities described in Robert Hare’s Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopath. Hare’s description of beings who are unable to feel empathy due to a genetic abnormality fitted Phil’s personality disturbingly well. Like them, he tended to wreck other people’s lives, amplified any harm done to himself vastly out of proportion, yet was able to inflict harm on others with no apparent remorse or conscience. His constant probing and testing of others, she speculated, was based on a profound sense of his own inauthenticity. If he could fake being a human so well, how did he know that everyone else wasn’t doing the same? It was an idea Phil himself had represented in several of his works, most notably  his 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? which contains the Voigt-Kampff device, famously depicted in Blade Runner, which detects the difference between androids and humans based on their autonomic empathy reactions. (Another version is the James Benjamin Proverb Test in We Can Build You (1969) used to detect for schizophrenia, a condition closely associated by Phil with the android and its lack of empathy).

A few days after the Walsh’s had thrown Phil out of their home, Susan received a phone call from Phil. He told her that he was going to “turn out the lights”. Not recognising the euphemism, and assuming he just wanted to go to sleep, she wished him good night and hung up. He had in fact just taken an overdose of potassium bromide with the intention of taking his own life.


Interview with David Berner

How Phil ended up at X-Kalay is unclear. In an interview for Vertex magazine in 1974, Phil claimed to have been told about the centre by the  councillor he spoke to over the phone during his suicide attempt. After talking for over an hour he was finally told: “Here’s what’s the matter. You have nothing to do; you have no purpose; you came up here and you gave your speeches and now you’re sitting in your apartment. You don’t need psychotherapy. You need purposeful work.”

It is probable, given the circles Phil had been moving in, that he would have heard about X-Kalay which at that time was well-known on the cultural scene. Founded in 1967 by David Berner, X-Kalay had begun as a half-way house for First Nations ex-cons called The Indian Post Release Society. Within a year, inspired by the examples of therapeutic communities like Daytop in New York and Synanon in California, the organization was re-named The X-Kalay Foundation  (or Unknown Path) combining the Kwak’wala word for “path” or “way” with the sign for an unknown quantity. Using an extreme form of daily psycho-dramatic group therapy known as The Game, X-Kalay began to stage 48 hour open house sessions at its club house in Mount Pleasant, where its house band would play, its live-in community growing rapidly to include families and its self-reliant business operations expanding to include a pizza restaurant, beauty parlour, stationary business and a hotel on Salt Spring Island. David Berner explains how the foundation moved from working primarily with First Nations ex-cons, to working primarily with anyone with significant substance abuse issues.

In the Vertex interview Phil claimed to have had to pretend to be a heroin addict in order to be admitted to X-Kalay. But it’s highly unlikely that the staff there would have fallen for such a routine. Michael Walsh has suggested that Phil’s desire to enter the ex-con, drug-rehab centre was another of his “probes” for a new fiction. And indeed, Phil’s time at X-Kalay formed the basis for his 1977 novel A Scanner Darkly.

In the remaining interview, filmed in December 2017, David discusses life at X-Kalay in the 1960’s and 70’s, the racial politics of Vancouver in the time, the failures of drug legislation in the Province and his memories of Phil’s time at the foundation.


Sketches for a Time-Slip Installation

These are three sketches for a 4 channel video installation to be exhibited in the future. They combine footage shot and audio recorded during the Dynamo Arts Association residency in August 2016, 360° photospheres baded on Philip K. Dick’s stay in Vancouver in April 1972, archive recordings of Dick’s early planetary colonization stories and interviews with the author.

Images and Video from Chief Alan Hunt’s Potlatch Ceremony (03/09/16)

In September 2016 the Skullcracker team were invited, through Steve and Beau, to attend the potlatch ceremony of Kwakwaka’wakw Chief Alan Hunt at the Tsaxis Big House, Fort Rupert. Alan is a descendant of George Hunt, Franz Boas’s famous research assistant and co-director, with Curtis, of In the Land of the Headhunters, whose father, Robert Hunt had worked for the Hudson Bay Company. Alan, like Beau, is a master carver, dancer and singer. He is also an expert in the work of Boas and Hunt, which has been a major resource for Kwakwaka’wakw cultural resurgence since the 1950’s. Steve Calvert, Gregoire Dupond, Stephanie Moran and myself were graciously allowed to document much of the 14 hour ceremony, which included the dance of the giant cannibal birds, the initiation of Chief Hunt’s brother Jaden into the Hamatsa secret society, and the dancing of several new masks recently created by Beau and Alan. This was an incredible honour for us all, to which we offer our sincerest thanks to Alan, Beau and Steve. Here are some images and a short video sequence from that amazing day.

img_0020img_0035dsc_0172dsc_0174dsc_0035 dsc_0039Beau Dick Mask 2016-09-03