Accepted Paper:

Breaking A Copper in Public: A Technique for Distributing Surplus Value  
Charlotte Townsend-Gault (University of British Columbia)

Paper short abstract:

The 2017 public cutting of a high value Kwakwaka'wakw copper in Ottawa understood not as the display of a treasured object but a technique to release its enigmatic surplus

Paper long abstract:

The form of a Kwakwaka'wakw copper is a challenge to materialist description. Since the Kwakwaka'wakw treat their coppers as animate, the English nouns 'object' and 'thing' only perpetuate the transcultural misidentification endemic to the history of Northwest Coast Native 'art'. At the apogee of the potlatch 'system', a chiefly copper is a store of value, both tangible and intangible. Its display enhances the power and status of its owner. Its rare, staged, breaking, shames a rival power. It does not destroy but activates, releasing surplus value, a sharp realization of cultural technique (Siegert 2015, Dick 2016). For over a century the ceremonies associated with masks, coppers and other regalia, were punishable offences under Canada's 1876 Indian Act. Simultaneously, the copper, central to debate about 'the gift', has been an artifact of anthropology's history: Boas, Durkheim, Mauss, Levi-Strauss, Godelier, et al. In 2016, retrieved from both transgression and discursive labours, named coppers were travelled across Canada by Kwakwaka'wakw leaders to be broken in confrontational public actions in front of the federal parliament in Ottawa. Although not without internal controversy, the technique was the pivot of events that combined political activism, and cultural transformation. Attention shifted from treasure to technique, what a break can do rather than what a copper is, revealing that surplus value can be released by a cut. When, in 2017, this performance of technique migrated to international art worlds in Kassel and Venice, its surplus value escaped the thrall of object display, and the misleading allure of art.

Panel P052
Artefacts and visual systems in Oceania and America