Intervention – “Toby Sharp’s Energy Dragon: The Politics of Productivity, Self-Care, and Decolonization in the Neoliberal University”

Heather McLean (Thompson Rivers University, Kamloops, BC, Canada)

Toby Sharp is a world leading innovation and creativity researcher who spearheads university research commercialization strategies. Recently, he has developed unique leadership expertise in self-care and healing, a growing area in the stressful neoliberal university sector. Currently he is proliferating innovative projects in a city named Kamloops, BC, or Tk’emlups te Secwepemc within the unceded traditional lands of Secwepemcúl’ecw.

In this video, Toby demonstrates his prowess in mentoring feminist researchers and forging partnerships with oil and gas companies. According to Toby, Secwepemcúl’ecw presents all kinds of dynamic opportunities for cutting-edge research. In particular, he sees potential in researching the Trans Mountain Expansion Project currently being drilled under Secwepemcetkwe (AKA the South Thompson River, named after British fur trader, surveyor, and cartographer David Thompson). The 1,150km-long TMX pipe will transport 890,000 barrels of crude oil per day from the Alberta tar sands to oil carrying tankers in the Salish Sea in Unceded Coast Salish Territories (AKA Vancouver).

He is also excited about leading research in decoloniality in Secwepemcúl’ecw. In October 2020, Secwepemc land defenders led a month of direct action at Sqeq’petsin (Mission Flats Beach, just west of Kamloops) to assert their rights and title through continued usage of the land. The land defenders claim that they have never signed, ceded, or surrendered their territory to build the expansion that threatens the territory’s abundant waterways and wildlife. For Toby, this kind of front-line work offers exciting and cutting-edge research in the booming business of decoloniality.

This drag king parody emerged out of my frustrations with the contradictory politics of universities promoting a tangled mess of decolonialization, public-private partnerships, resilience, and self-care. During my time as a research fellow in the UK, decolonization emerged as the hot new area of analysis. In many ways, this research prompted difficult and needed discussions about unsettling white supremacist, heteropatriarchal, and decolonial knowledge hierarchies. At the same time, racialized, intersectional feminist, and LGBTQ+ colleagues critiqued the spread of this trend for decolonial-washing oppressive institutions gentrifying communities with real estate deals. Colleagues also critiqued this rush to produce decolonial work as racialized faculty and staff worked in increasingly fear-based, competitive, and precarious conditions. Meanwhile, we were constantly encouraged to attend self-care and mindfulness meditation workshops to strengthen our bodies and minds to improve our productivity. Here in settler-colonial Canada, universities located on stolen territories claiming to decolonize research and teaching are actively supportive of ongoing dispossession of Indigenous lands through real estate development and partnerships with oil and gas companies (Daigle 2019).

Conversations with my friend Keira McPhee, a counsellor and facilitator who works in the food sovereignty movement and whose practice is grounded in anti-racism and somatic approaches, also inspired this video. As we have engaged in socially distanced walks this past year, we have discussed the role of art and performance in responding to unhealthy institutional power dynamics. We also reflected on our responsibilities as settlers living in Secwepemcúl’ecw and how we can work in solidarity with the land defenders protecting the waters here. Moreover, Keira introduced me to the work of BIPOC somatic therapists including Tada Hozumi (2020) and Resmaa Menakem (2017) who point out how, as white people, white supremacy, settler-colonial violence, and misogyny are threaded through our nervous systems. These embodied healers also practice trauma-informed somatic healing for understanding and dismantling these systems and structures. After discussing my ideas for this Toby video, Keira recruited her budding film maker son and comedy aficionado Harry Lamb who provided the sound and editing. We also received editing support and mentoring from Lorna Boschman and Sebnem Ozpeta with Digital Stories Canada in collaboration with the grunt gallery, an artist-run center in Vancouver.

For Keira and me, learning about the violence of the pipeline development and the land defenders’ work to resist it have been deeply embodied and somatic experiences. While women Secwepemc land defenders led a water ceremony on the river, an unsettling repetitive thumping sound echoed across the valley as the Trans Mountain Corporation drilled the pipeline nearby. Together, the water ceremony songs and prayers, the children’s laughter, and the aroma from the food we shared contrasted with the intense drilling mixed with the industrial pollution from the pulp mill effluent ponds situated near the river. The sounds and smells told a story about those caring for the river’s sacred life and the degrading and violent short-term thinking of petro-capitalist planning in this fragile ecosystem. Also, when Keira, her son Harry, and I showed up to the public beach to film the video, a security guard walked up to us and stated aggressively: “You better not be making anything about the pipeline.” She is one of many private security contractors protecting big lots of blue pipes and equipment dotting the valley.

Some of my friends charge that satirizing the contradictory politics of the neoliberal and colonial university is a way to avoid taking these politics seriously. They have also encouraged me to not make negative art and, instead, proliferate hope and positivity with my work. However, for me and the drag and alter ego performers I admire, exaggerating and laughing at contradictions is a hopeful practice, a playful and embodied release that can generate solidarity. As my queer theorist and drag performer friend dp stated: “Sometimes you must go the full Vagina Dentata to find humor and to connect.” Similarly, as performance theorist and artist T.L. Cowan (2017) writes, drag is a way for 2SLGBTQ+ and feminist artists in the margins to “hack together” the worlds we want to live in. Maybe performance offers a somatic response to white supremacist, heteropatriarchal, and colonial institutions? Maybe stopping to laugh at and roll around in the misogynist cruelty of pipeline drilling is one little way to call out this absurdity and walk towards co-healing?

Acknowledgements

This video first appeared at Digital Stories Canada: https://digitalstories.ca/video/toby-sharp-energy-dragon/ / https://vimeo.com/493486314
https://digitalstories.ca/video/toby-sharp-energy-dragon/

References

Cowan T L (2017) Insubordinate, indiscrete, interdisciplinary: Risking perpetual precarity in all the wrong places, or, Just being fabulous, a manifesto. Hook and Eye 20 November https://hookandeye.ca/2017/11/20/guest-post-insubordinate-indiscrete-interdisciplinary-risking-perpetual-precarity-in-all-the-wrong-places-or-just-being-fabulous-a-manifesto/ (last accessed 21 December 2020)

Daigle M (2019) The spectacle of reconciliation: On (the) unsettling responsibilities to Indigenous peoples in the academy. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 37(4):703-721

Hozumi T (2020) “Selfish Activist.” https://selfishactivist.com/ (last accessed 21 December 2020)

Menakem R (2017) My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies. Las Vegas: Central Recovery Press