Katherine Boyer (Métis/Settler) is a multidisciplinary artist, whose work is focused on methods bound to textile arts and the handmade - primarily woodworking and beadwork. Boyerʼs art and research encompasses personal family narratives, entwined with Métis history, material culture, architectural spaces (human made and natural). Her work often explores boundaries between two opposing things as an effort to better understand both sides of a perceived dichotomous identity. This manifests in long, slow, and considerate laborious processes that attempt to unravel and better understand history, environmental influences, and personal memories.
Boyer has received a BFA from the University of Regina (Sculpture + Printmaking) and an MFA at the University of Manitoba. She currently holds a position as an Assistant Professor at the University of Manitoba, School of Art.
Interview with Katherine Boyer and Laura Margita
Sanding by Katherine Boyer. Part 1
Sanding by Katherine Boyer. Part 2
Sanding by Katherine Boyer. Part 3
Animated folding illustrated art
She kept at it until it broke.
Digital ideas by Katherine Boyer.
At the height of the pandemic I received a request from Liz Barron at Apartment 7 to participate in a curatorial project with Katherine Boyer. At first glance I knew Liz had found me the perfect artist to partner with. Her work is rich with the exciting combination of divergent forms of making: loud wood working in the shop and quiet repetitive beading at the kitchen table. Boyer’s vision is full of risk and experimentation. She uses a wide range of media and practices: beading, textiles, woodwork, installation, performance and, now, video work created for digital gatherings like blurthebinary.
Today, Boyer’s artistic practice is playing out against a background of COVID 19, racism, domestic violence, dismissal of the elderly and infirm and homeless, food insecurities and environmental crisis. That’s a lot. In our current moment the truth about residential school atrocities has reached the entire Canadian population who still seem unfamiliar with the fact that these types of racism are ongoing. The past is not the past, and the numbers of Indigenous children in “care" is larger today than at any other time in history. Together we must grieve the past, be strong in our activism and find the space to create change. It is time to break the cycle and Boyer is showing us a way.
Boyer has a dedicated practice of beading each morning. It is a physically demanding task, that makes for blurry vision from squinting eyes, aching hands, neck and back. But She has beading to do, and it is more nourishing than it is taxing. It is a meditative experience because the act of beading connects to her ancestors. She can reconnect with important cultural ideas that had been stolen, destroyed and dismissed. She creates new speculative designs such as the one used in this project that hold family stories and the beauty of the Metis culture and knowledge that informs a good life. The beads are sacred beings that share our mother earth. I see her early morning beading practice as performative action, similar to that of the hummingbird that carries a tiny bead of water in its beak to drop over a forest fire. She keeps going regardless of worries that her labour may not be enough, pushing through the pain of flying above a roaring forest fire. Boyer’s use of beads is about reliance and hope; her code is beauty, and her goal is balance and freedom.
Boyer’s subject matter for this work is to interrogate the tyranny of a binary outlook. The binary concept is very powerful. This digital world where we are meeting right now is a binary code of ones and zeros that in turn has become one of the most powerful forces in the history of our planet. Not all bad, the binary has connected us via the world wide web: a web of profit, slave labour, fossil fuels, plastic, electricity and rare metals that nevertheless has eased our burdens and given voice to those who have been silenced. We now have unprecedented access to knowledge and can access truths that were inconvenient to the power structures that control our lives.
A binary worldview supports the current, unbalanced world power. This is the basis of empire and colonization. The Greek, and then roman version of our “ blah, blah, blah” was “bar, bar, bar” giving birth to the world and the concept of barbarians. Thus, the western world divided humanity into “us” and “them”; unleashing the structure that subjugates all forms of “others” and gave rise to all kinds of evil. With blurthebinary, Boyer presents us with a series of object lessons that illustrate how binaries can dissolve into a multiverse of perspectives.
Much more than a subject for artistic production, I am so proud and privileged to have been given permission, in this essay about blurthebinary, to position her as a queer artist. The old Gay and Lesbian identifiers I grew up with still bounced around between the binaries of masculine and feminine. The term Two-Spirit was adopted in 1990 at the Third Annual Native American Gay and Lesbian gathering in Winnipeg, Manitoba, homeland of the Metis and Treaty One Territory, and where Boyer currently resides. The term Two-Spirit was agreed to be the best way to describe their community using and adopting a colonized language, English.
It was also understood to be both a spiritual and social signifier. Her queerness not only identifies her but creates a certain context and orientation to her art. The images she creates point in no particular direction, the action is open and opaque at the same time. Her practice is multi directional and that makes it accessible to a wide variety of viewers, each with our own individual past experiences. One of the strengths of her digital work is that she creates the actions with purpose built and beautiful tools that signify no privilege or specialist knowledge, follow no particular story line, just an action that begins and ends in time, allowing us the freedom of speculation so that we have a rich and personal experience of her work.
She will join a new vibrant and growing community of Two-Spirit, Indigi-queer and non-binary Indigenous artists who are a powerful and growing force in contemporary Canadian culture.
We enter the digital project, blurthebinary, through a digital diptych of two, before and after, photos of a black, broken strap placed upon a portable, vice clamp, sawhorse. On the left is an image of the beaded strap with a broken handle. We can still see the beaded binary code, (reading “blurthebinary” in 1’s and 0’s, or black and white), that runs its length. On the right, the devoid strap is decorated with a small threaded grid of what is left of the anchor threads that once secured the message. The beads and the handle that broke are gone. The discarded straps rest upon her dads’ 30-year-old sawhorse. We can imagine his influence on her creativity as it provides the basis and the support for the work. This diptych is the background, frame and entry point into the series of videos that make up the content within. We find the digital offerings through the broken, decoded and, ultimately, discarded strap. The binary has not only been blurred it has been erased.
Although we are invited in through a binary of images we can explore this binary freely, there are no rules or clues; you click on either image to view the three videos. They are: untitled document, (single channel, 22 seconds); blurthebinary #1, (four channel, 11 minutes) and blurthebinary #2, (single channel, 7 minutes, approx).
untitled document is a stationary shot of a small stand of trees. Our main players here are two different species of trees rubbing together. The dominant sound at the beginning of the work is the wind rushing through the trees and around the microphone. It looks like there is snow on the ground so we can imagine that it is a chilling wind at that. Then we hear the second track: the sound of the trees rubbing together in the wind. The action of rubbing creates a quiet creaking that, at first, sounds like a cricket scraping the tops of his wings; like a playing on a tiny washboard.. And then the sound becomes more strident against the wind sounds. It builds up and then abruptly: silence and the film is complete.
One tree is a skinny white birch that was growing straight up until she encountered the larger, rougher type of tree with strong scaly grey and brown bark. The birch had to make a move once she reached the other tree and has been growing on an angle towards the camera to continue skyward and catch the life-giving sun.
What we do not see is that these trees are eternally connected below the soil. We can see them dancing together in a grinding, creaking crush. Like all good art we are left with many questions: is it a comforting or a painful rubbing, how long can they sustain their dance until one pushes too far into the other, will they grow around each other, what lives in the space they have created? This simple video shows but a moment in the lives of these trees. We watch them now and can imagine that they will be rubbing against each other for the whole of their lives.
In blurthebinary #1 we see Boyer who is documenting a performative action filmed over the span of two days. The artwork is split into a 4-channel grid. Each one records a part of that time and layers the audio of those times into movements that are now preserved in time.
We see four versions of two cedar logs that have been deliberately placed against one another. Unlike the birch and spruce, the rubbing is made with a handmade tool, which is in itself another artwork. It is a decommissioned industrial sanding strip decorated with beaded code, which spells out “blurthebinary”. That sander belt was taken from its original purpose, cut apart and repurposed for her needs. No machine required, asserting the primacy of making by hand, rejecting the workshop rules. Art insulating her against the rules of the wood shop and possible comments like: “hey sweetie, that’s not how that works!!!”
The sanding actions we witness are simple, repetitive and physically exhausting. Boyer sands for two days and pushes through her physical discomfort. She just sanded until the blisters in her hands got too uncomfortable and was forced to tape her calluses in order to keep going. We see the passage of time through the 4 channels as the sun moves from the left to the right of the screens. The four channels represent multiple points of view in the same plane or surface.
The sound of the sanding is a heartbeat that speeds up and slows with the energy of the sander. We can imagine blood pumping though our veins: "swish -swish, swish-swish, her sanding continues until the hearts' blood of the cedar is revealed. The entire soundtrack of blurthebinary #1 moves from silence, sanding, coughing, laughter and finally a surprised sound when the strap finally fails and breaks.
blurthebinary #2 is a 7-minute record of Boyer erasing the binary code on her sanding strap. The video follows her actions of cutting away the black and white beads from the strap with a seam ripper. What is left behind is the grid of the tacking thread that once anchored the message. It makes me think of hollow treaty promises erased by greed, racism, indifference and lack of education.
Although maybe her work may not be explicitly political, (the work is far too beautiful and experimental for mere didactic activism), Boyer’s work suggests a pathway to such a place; a place where we can break the binary and find space and place for all, where the truth is visible and a new conversation towards social and environmental justice can begin. It is a seemingly impossible, monumental task; too much for any one person or any one artwork. I feel my resilience grow, supported and inspired by the beauty of her work, the fragility of her beading and her test of strength.