Toronto specializing in contemporary photography

Sara Matthews essay on Philip Cheung

Exhibition essay

Watching the Watchers

by Sara Matthews

Searching the Canadian Forces website, one learns that the motto of the 1st Canadian Ranger Patrol group is Vigilans – meaning “The Watchers”1. The more direct translation from the original Latin is “watchful”. It may seem a small point, but this subtle shift from the noun to the adjectival form of the word captures something pivotal to Philip Cheung’s approach with Arctic Front—rather than represent a person, a place or thing, he instead labors with description, visually chronicling the attributes and subtle dimensions of thing-ness and place-ness, and so inviting the viewer to do the same.

Arctic Front, Cheung relates, is the first chapter in a long-form documentary project that seeks the frontlines of Canadian Forces operations. In military parlance, the front is the location of tactical contact or contestation between opposing forces. It is where the logistics of martial politics are engaged and encompasses everything from the personnel and specialized equipment to the unique operations and capital economies necessary to the sovereign project of nation-building. Most civilians are somewhat familiar with Canada’s frontline role in Afghanistan from 2002–2014, where Cheung, as an embedded photographer, made several bodies of work2. But where is the front after Afghanistan? For Cheung, this is a pressing question. The Canadian Forces currently contributes to military operations in the Ukraine, Iraq, Syria and the Caribbean, as well as the Arctic3. Starting with the latter came naturally to the artist since he trained there as a young soldier and because, he tells me, the Arctic tundra and the deserts of Afghanistan hold a similar visual quality. He’s also interested to map how these landscapes are altered by the spatial scale of labor—for instance, the ways in which economic and military logistics make an imprint on social and physical terrain.

In the Arctic territory matters and indeed is a question of the material. Sea ice is melting, there is speculation about the partial opening of the Northwest Passage4, and national disputes over fisheries and the delineation of the continental shelf (and access to fossil fuel reserves) are escalating. These worries are an extension of the sovereign colonial project in the country we now know as Canada, in which the Arctic has a complicated history made from the unsettled relations between newcomers and Indigenous peoples who live and work in relationship to the land. Even the juridical frameworks for determining territorial boundaries—does “land” include sea ice, for instance?—are changing as rapidly as the climate5. Resource extraction, claims for territory and rights of passage, environmental conservation, tourism, scientific exploration as well as the manufacture of the North as somehow essentially “Canadian”, make up these settler relations which litter the landscape with the physical ghosts of their infrastructures.

This is the context in which the Canadian Rangers do their work. Originally formed as Reserve corps in British Columbia during the latter part of the Second World War, their nation-wide expansion during the Cold War coincided with a broadened security strategy in the North6. A volunteer branch within the Canadian Forces, the Rangers role includes bolstering national security, stewarding sovereignty and nation-building in Arctic regions. Ranger patrols, which draw recruits from local Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities across the North and are distinguished by their regulation red sweatshirts and ballcaps, conduct surveillance exercises, act as local guides and first responders, as well as train southern military units in the arts of wilderness survival7. But what are the contemporary political conditions that require such an attitude of northern watchfulness?

The Canadian government’s understanding of sovereignty is drawn from the Westphalian tradition which ties national security to the maintenance of the territorial status of the nation-state8. But this Western model is not the only one. Mary Simon, past president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, suggests that “a twenty-first-century model for Arctic sovereignty must move beyond the outdated model of infrastructure and military bases by including Inuit as partners in defining new goals for sovereignty that include ensuring that new investments are linked to improving the well-being of Inuit”9.

This view of human and environmental security as opposed to national security is reflected in the Circumpolar Inuit Declaration on Sovereignty in the Arctic, which emphasizes sustainable development and the right to self-determination on matters related to health, food security, territories, languages and cultures10. As Simon insists, until “Inuit are treated as all other Canadians are… with the same standard of education, health care, and infrastructure that is the foundation of healthy communities across Canada”, then claims to sovereignty in the Arctic are moot.

With his visual project Arctic Front, Cheung does not shy away from these complicated conversations but neither does he attempt a simple answer. Utilizing a medium format digital camera and tripod, his photographic process is slowed-down and mirrors the attitude of watchfulness with which his subjects are tasked. Encouraging the viewer to likewise adopt this stance of vigilant interest, each photograph offers an enigma that hints towards a greater whole. For instance, Cheung’s study of the metal remainders of deactivated DEW line sites on King William Island (Deactivated DEW Line Site #1 and #2, King William Island; Ration Cans, Deactivated DEW Line Site), reveals the skeletal architecture of the infrastructures of sovereignty and their indelible haunting of the fragile Arctic landscape. This close attention to military logistics—as can be seen in Canadian Armed Forces C-17 Transport Aircraft, Rankin Inlet—divulges its textures but stops short of concluding the narrative. A counterpoint image (Taloyoak, Nunavut) installed at the opposite end of the gallery broadens the perspective to the communities in which the Rangers live and patrol, bridging the gap between southern military transports and their northern destinations. Other works continue this contrapuntal movement, splitting open the dualities between civilian and military spheres of life. Rae Strait, in which the distinction between sea and air is punctured by the recognizable red clothing worn by two Rangers piloting a watercraft, brings together the questions that Cheung’s project suggests: how does one learn to be watchful of the relationships that contribute to one’s sense of security and place?

In her account of learning to see images of suffering, visual theorist Ariella Azoulay articulates the difference between looking and watching11:

Photography is more than what is printed on photographic paper. The photograph bears the seal of the photographic event, and reconstructing this event requires more than just identifying what is shown in the photograph. One needs to stop looking at the photograph and instead start watching it.

Watching, a verb typically used to describe time-based rather than still phenomena, suggests an unstable movement at play in which the subject of the gaze destabilizes any singular instance of what can be known. Given that photographic technologies are so heavily embedded in histories of militarization and surveillance, this attitude of watching moves against the camera’s desire to fix. The type of watching that the Rangers engage is tied to nation-building, but it is also about learning to see relationships that a fixed glance cannot grasp—between water and air and land and place. Cheung’s orientation to this provocation is to take the slow road, to let the story emerge, and to assert the difference between watching as a practice of sovereign power and that of ethical witnessing.

5. United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea
6. For more information on the history of the Rangers see P. Whitney Lackenbauer (2013). “If it Ain’t Broke Don’t Break It: Expanding and Enhancing the Canadian Rangers”, Working Papers on Arctic Security No. 6, Munk School of Global Affairs, P. Whitney Lackenbauer (2013), The Canadian Rangers: A Living History. Vancouver: UBC Press.
7. For more on the Canadian Rangers see Watchers of the North. CBC/APTN.
8. Canada’s Northern Strategy: Our North, Our Heritage, Our Future. Published under the authority of the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development and Federal Interlocutor for Métis and Non-Status Indians, Ottawa, 2009.
9. Mary Simon (2009). Inuit and the Canadian Arctic: Sovereignty Begins at Home. Journal of Canadian Studies/Revue d’études canadiennes, 43(2):250-260.
11, Ariella Azoulay (2008). The Civil Contract of Photography. Brooklyn: Zone Books.

Sara Matthews, December 2018
©Sara Matthews. All Rights Reserved.


Sara Matthews is Associate Professor in the Department of Global Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University. Her research and teaching are interdisciplinary and consider the dynamics of war, violence and social change. Working primarily in the field of research-creation, her projects explore the relations between visual culture, nation building, colonialism and martial politics. In addition to her academic-based work, Sara curates aesthetic projects that archive visual encounters with legacies of war and social trauma. Her critical art writing has appeared in PUBLIC, FUSE Magazine and in exhibition essays for the Robert Langen Gallery, Circuit Gallery, the Ottawa Art Gallery, the Doris McCarthy Gallery and as a blog for Gallery TPW.

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