Katt Lissard

Interview

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Malealea Valley village women teaching a traditional song. Photo by Rik Walton

Katt Lissard (KL): The initial focus of Split the Village will be on trying to lay down some of our own groundwork and begin to build a collaborative framework with community members and discover ways to connect to the work-in-process of the archeology team.  We’re coming in when most of the excavation work is complete and a series of oral histories has already been compiled – all done by professionals, academics and local people in association with the community and with a respect for the intangible cultural heritage of the area.  What I think we contribute to the mix is the notion that this “place” might find expression beyond what can go into the professional or academic or even local archives. Those archives are crucial-- we're not trying to replace or re-do any of that -- but there could be ways to discover and create performative, visual, cross-disciplinary expressions in which the particulars of this place could be shared in ways that also communicate the universals of what it represents – culturally, environmentally, community-wise.

 

Of course, that notion assumes the importance of building this collaboration, which we hope will include community members, students, etc. with an awareness of the tension between what seems most desirable to “archive” or "collect" from the viewpoint of an outsider and what seems most desirable to "protect" or possibly “shield” from the viewpoint of an insider. It’s not a simple dichotomy , insider/outsider. It always seems multi-layered to me, and particularly in something like this, where there has already been such a broad spectrum of people involved from both inside and outside of Lesotho (and from both inside and outside within Lesotho itself, i.e. academics and farmers; students and traditional healers; archeologists and chiefs, etc).

 

Janeil Engelstad (JE): As an outsider, what are the interests and biases that you bring into this project and this place?

 

KL: I have a strong personal interest in/bias toward finding out about any water rituals that might be practiced along the river, because water is not only a central character in this drama, it’s a central character in the global drama as well. I, the outsider, think it's important to "express" these rituals in as many creative formats as possible because their meaning is particular to this stretch of the Phuthiatšana River. The rituals are a piece of the unique cultural construction of this unique place and will be irrevocably lost once the valley is flooded. If they're archived in print, they can be shared with those who read and have access to the materials. If they're archived in digital media and made accessible on the internet, they can be shared globally, with anyone who has access. But if we can find ways that they can be "dramatically archived" in performance, they can be shared, live, with the immediate community, and with communities nearby, and throughout the nation, and with communities nearby (i.e. just over the border in the Free State, South Africa) -- and then those expressions can go digital and be posted on the internet, etc.  But, finding those performative expressions is the tricky part. I think this is true for each of the potential "archival" pieces of the River Valley's culture -- even if a piece is something as seemingly "everyday" as a footbridge across the river, a pasture where the sheep graze, or the rocks where women dry the clothes once they've been washed. But, does the community feel this particular element of the “cultural construction of place” is crucial to communicating what will be lost?  And, most importantly, do the people who know, for example, the water rituals want them expressed to communities beyond their own?  It will be intriguing to try to answer these questions, to discover what the community feels is crucial and what the community wants to share.

 

JE: The answers to those questions are an ethically important part of this work. As an outsider what are your motivations for producing this project and how exactly or much does the community participate in the design of the project?

 

KL:  Well, if the community doesn’t participate in the design of the project, there won’t be a project.  It can’t happen without the community being involved from the beginning – it’s their river valley that’s going to be flooded, it’s their particular cultural heritage and place that will be impacted. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have any thoughts about what might happen, or that the students and other artists involved don’t have ideas, images and anticipations about what might be possible – obviously, we do.  And, quite obviously, we are from outside (either outside the country or outside the community) with an idea about creating something together, so in the most basic sense we are “coming in” (even those of us who were born in Lesotho). But, until we’ve begun to meet with community members who are interested in participating and find out what they feel they’re losing, what’s important, what matters … and whether or not doing a project together is something they want to do, the actual design will remain malleable and in-process (and will remaint be a project.

malleable throughout, I imagine).

 

JE: There is so much historical and cultural material that can be gleaned from this project and then there are all of the ideas and skills that the different participants bring to the work. Do you have a vision for how any of this will look or sound in the end piece?

 

K: Again, this would all be based on the ebb and flow of the collaborative interrelationship and the degree to which the community desires to translate their vanishing segment of the Phuthiatšana to the rest of the world.  On one hand, there's the very theatre driven work we'd like to do of finding the performative expressions of this place -- which might sound simple, but which would involve an intricate, but hopefully compelling, community process. Something else we’d like to explore is creating an interactive digital map of the area, which would become the heart of a richly detailed, multimedia website. This would be one possible “global” expression. The map would be constructed as a layered set of “transparencies” of the River Valley. It could, as one feature, allow visitors a straight forward step-by-step of the flooding of the area, but it could also allow them to peel back the successive layers to re-find or re-discover the culture and the place that the community itself has assembled for experience and consideration. In this way the community offers the viewer a way to thoroughly experience what has been submerged – to not only to see the vanishing foot bridges and pathways between communities, but to hear the calls of a herd boy to the sheep who no longer have a pasture to graze in and the fading ritual chant of the women to the water. d like to do of finding the performative expressions of this place -- which might sound simple, but which would involve an intricate, but hopefully compelling, community process. Something else we

 

JE: What are your motivations, as an outsider, for producing this project?

 

KL: I’ve been teaching and making theatre about HIV/AIDS in Lesotho since 2005, first through a Fulbright and then through the work of The Winter/Summer Institute.  While the focus of that work has been on the HIV pandemic, I’ve always been deeply interested in the significance of Lesotho in the global water equation.  Most Westerners or “1st Worlders” hadn’t heard of this tiny landlocked place until the celebrity visits of Prince Harry , Angelina Jolie and Bill Clinton in response to the AIDS crises.

 

But Lesotho has been on the ravaged front lines as far as water exploitation and environmental impact are concerned since the late 1980s.  So, when I proposed a new Fulbright, I wanted to focus on water.  Originally, I wanted to connect with community members who were displaced by the construction of the Katse and Mohale Dams (Phase I of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project). I wondered if there was a way to create a series of collaborative performance/installations with the dams’ diaspora as a way of looking at the destruction that Phase I had caused – culturally, environmentally, socially.  That’s a very big project. There are an estimated 27,000 displaced people who are living all over Lesotho and in South Africa. I’d begun to put that project together, but in November of 2010, I was fortunate to meet Charlie Arthur, who is leading the Metolong excavation archeology team. It felt like a synchronistic crossing-of-paths and seemed natural to see if there was a way to connect to the immediacy and depth of the truly amazing work the team was already doing and all the great community involvement already in motion. We’ll see. My approach to the project is creative and arts-based. I’m not an archeologist or anthropologist, or historian or geologist or ethnographer, nor am I a member of the community.  But, I do think Lesotho could be a crucially important “canary in the mineshaft” as far as the looming global water crisis is concerned. Split the Village hopes to spread the news about how that canary is doing.

 

From conversations between Janeil Engelstad and Katt Lissard, January – March 2012