Profane Illuminations: History and Collaboration in James Luna and Isaac Artenstein's the History of the Luiseno People

By McHugh, Kathleen | Biography, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Profane Illuminations: History and Collaboration in James Luna and Isaac Artenstein's the History of the Luiseno People


McHugh, Kathleen, Biography


James Luna and Isaac Artenstein's The History of the Luiseno People. La Jolla Reservation, Christmas 1990 (1993) depicts Luna drinking, smoking, and watching TV while he makes phone calls to and receives them from his family on Christmas Day 1990. The History of the Luiseno People and the collaboration which produced it translate a theatrically-staged autobiographical performance by Luna to moving image media by Artenstein. Given its content, the mundane twenty-seven minute narrative seems to proffer the everyday and stereotypical in perplexing relation to the historiographical ambition of its title. In that perplexing relation, however, Luna and Artenstein fully exploit performance art and artisanal video's respective engagements with autobiographical life-narratives to embody and enact the fundamental problems of history and self-representation confronting Native people.

Funded by a Rockefeller Inter-Cultural Film/Video Fellowship, this video is the outcome of collaborative relations not only between the respective artists, but also across distinct media, conventions, and disciplines, and with corporate funding institutions. In Luna and Artenstein's collaboration, the performance artist's body is framed and visualized on video by the filmmaker's eye behind the camera. Here, Luna's performance and Artenstein's video of that performance rely on impertinent impersonations, manifestly trafficking in or collaborating with stereotypical representations of the identity group to which Luna belongs. This essay sets out to trace the productivity of the many forms of collaboration utilized in this piece. These collaborations produce, in the register of performative autobiography, meditations from a minoritarian perspective on the uses of self-narration for representing the relation of ethnicity to history. (1) Luna and Artenstein locate this history within a structure of refusal and absence generated by a synthesis of indigenous and poststructuralist technique and thought, a synthesis fundamental to Luna's overall oeuvre. In an oft quoted article Luna wrote in 1991 on the place of performance art in Aboriginal culture, "Allow Me to Introduce Myself. The Performance Art of James Luna," he states:

   It is my feeling that artwork in the media of performance and
   installation offers an opportunity like no other for Indian people
   to express themselves without compromise in traditional art forms
   of ceremony, dance, oral traditions and contemporary thought.
   Within these [non-traditional] spaces one can use a variety of
   media such as objects, sounds, video, slides, so that there is no
   limit in how and what is expressed. (46)

In this context, it bears mention that Luna's metier as a performance artist, a contemporary aesthetic profession developed out of challenges to traditional theatrical and autobiographical representation, also taps into and draws from indigenous traditions of self-narration and representation of an "oral people who represented personal experience performatively and dramatically to an audience" (Krupat, Native 3). (2)

Luna's use of performance therefore allows him to finesse what Dale Turner identifies as a crucial problem confronting indigenous political and legal expression. Because indigenous people must "explain themselves within the discourses of the dominant culture," there is a need for indigenous scholars schooled in the traditions of Euro-American thought to "speak the language of the dominant culture while being guided by their indigenous philosophies" (73). Luna is indeed schooled in this tradition, but in his uses of performance, he evades or confounds the problem Turner identifies, compelling Euro-American tradition to contend with the indigenous thought and culture already haunting its own tradition. (3) Steven Durland observes that Luna's performance art "and its concerns with parody, ritual, and autobiography intersect with the traditional attitudes of Indian culture.

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