Jordan Abel: Un/Inhabited

by Chelsea Rooney

Award-winning Nisga’a poet Jordan Abel’s second collection of poetry, Un/inhabited, maps the terrain of the public domain to create a layered investigation of the interconnections between language and land. The book, published by Project Space Press, launches October 1 at 6:30pm at The Paper Hound Bookshop as part of Artists’ Books Week. On October 5 at 4pm  you can also join the author for a performance, Q&A and book signing at the Vancouver Art/Book Fair.

Decolonization is a big word. It refers to the top-down, legislative unravelling of oppressive institutions. Like, say, the residential school system. Or compulsory sterilization. Or the Crown’s unabated development on land not their own.

Decolonization also refers to the bottom-up, interior unsettling of a person or group who live, day to day, with the legacy of colonialism. For those of us who are not indigenous to North America, those of us who did not have our ancestral land stolen from us, it is very difficult to imagine what kind of psychological and emotional impression that creates.

In Vancouver, we live on unceded Coast Salish territory. Many denizens of this city can claim right to this land, and many denizens cannot. But here we all are, living together.

For Jordan Abel, a Nisga’a conceptual poet, decolonization continues forward with the search for, until now, unrecognized systems of oppression. Invisible structures of colonialism that haven’t yet been exposed. Exposing these systems is the first step toward eliminating them. The observer effect: once we look at something, it changes. Shifts. Opens up to new possibilities.

When I first saw Jordan Abel read, at the launch of his first book The Place of Scraps, I was struck by how wide a space he carved out for himself as an artist. He didn’t just read a poem; he used an electronic machine to create loops of his vocals that, layered on top of each other, generated a rhythm so primordial, it carried as much meaning as his words.

He didn’t just turn a page; he let page after page after crisp white page drop from his hands, flutter down to the spotlight pooled at his feet. He shared stories about his new work, his recent forays into the public domain of Project Gutenberg. His reconnoitering of texts whose expired copyrights had left them up for grabs.

Now, one year later, Abel will launch the result of this journey—his new book, Un/Inhabited. It opens with a quote by writer B.M. Bower: “You’re welcome to what land you own, but it always seemed to me that public land is open to the use of the public.”

The author of fifty-seven western novels, Bower refers to the open land of what she perceived as an unsettled America. An America that, as Abel discovered while he moved through the western genre, many writers claimed to be uninhabited. It’s a dangerous narrative, one that grew from the frontier narrative and persists in many corners of today’s capitalist class structures.

Abel calls these western books “pulp propaganda,” stories mass produced and gobbled down for their easily digested tropes: the weary but steadfast pioneer, the dominance of man over nature, the high and honourable call for civility and social maintenance.

“Western novels put up a wall around how we could think about this particular time period, the settlement period. It’s very necessary to return to these kinds of narratives. I find the genre of westerns to be so frustrating. It’s a genre that is still being written, and still romanticized… People kind of feel that it is an innocuous genre. Easily dismissed, not very relevant or interesting. I have to disagree.

“For me, decolonization looks a lot like the book Un/Inhabited. One of the most interesting practices is calling attention to specific moments where colonization is present but we haven’t actively recognized it yet…like the western genre. Just by relocating those texts to this new context, readers are much more able to read how colonialism runs through those narratives.”

In Un/Inhabited, Abel deftly and beautifully manipulates text appropriated from 91 novels found on the “W” (for western) bookshelf of Project Gutenberg. This cache of free literature has its origins in 1971, when Michael Hart typed the United States Declaration of Independence into a computer, thus (according to many) inventing the e-book and the first entry in Project Gutenberg.

Named after the man responsible for introducing printing to Europe, Project Gutenberg aimed to make books accessible to the masses, ultimately eliminating ignorance and illiteracy. Now, with stacks of books written primarily in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the website can seem like a museum of ignorance and bigotry. Racist textbooks on eugenics. Tomes of misogyny. And, of course, laughable anatomical predictions.

Today, Project Gutenberg has 45,000 works available, each with this header: “This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere in the United States and most other parts of the world at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License.”

Abel heard this call loud and clear. “When I look at Project Gutenberg and I think about that passage, I think, ‘How can I do something with this block or these blocks of text? What can I do with all of this free stuff lying around? Is there anything I can do?’”

Every year, more books lose their copyrights, giving Abel more information to work with. “(T)here are many texts and books out there that are still under copyright that I would also like to work with. Since my primary artistic mode is deconstruction and commentary, I feel as though the barrier of copyright is especially artificial for my practices. Without free information, my artistic practice probably wouldn’t exist.”

Un/Inhabited defies genre while embodying many: poetry, commentary, conceptual art, visual art and a sort of new literary sculpture. Here, Abel has claimed the western genre as his own—thanks to the explicit copyright law as disseminated by Project Gutenberg—and reworked the text in ways that reveal western clichés as not only destructive, but revisionist, hackneyed, and in crucial need of revisitation.

For Abel, the call to return to these documents is highly personal. “I work with appropriated text because it brings me closest to the subject matter. There is a barrier there between me and what I really want to talk about, which is the primary document…

“A lot of the representations of indigenous people haven’t really been challenged publically. It’s very strange for me, since I kind of feel like that probably should have already happened. A lot earlier than now.”