Even before it's plugged in, when the screens are still black, Bently Spang said his installation feels "a bit rock 'n' roll."
The Northern Cheyenne artist's video installation, "The Modern Warrior Series: War Shirt No. 6, 'Waterways,' " is constructed from 26 video monitors in the form of a war shirt, standing 8 feet, 10 inches high, with arms spanning about 21 and a half feet and lined with "fringes" in the form of even more screens. Switched on, the monitors display a loop, about 19 minutes, on the theme of water, that lights up a top-story gallery at the Missoula Art Museum.
Spang shot the video, traveling on road and foot from the Tongue River up to a source: a spring on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation.
"I'm telling the viewer to know your water, know where it comes from and how it gets to you, and then you can protect it," he said. "So we all should have a relationship with that water, with these places that the water manifests itself."
Spang, an award-winning Billings artist, said the video installation has been a dream of his for about 10 years. Once completed, he feels it does transcend all the technology, welding and programming required and feels as though it "took you to another place."
The installation was commissioned by Mountain Time Arts, a Bozeman-based nonprofit that creates "public art projects that enliven our relationships to the history, culture and environment of the Rocky Mountain West," according to its website. In 2017, it arranged a "Water Works" series centered on the importance of the resource.
Spang had been contemplating a video-based entry in his "war shirts" series, but lacked the funding and time to create one until Mountain Time Arts commissioned it.
He created the shirt with the help from a small team, for that welding and programming, and installed it in Dry Creek School, a small one-room schoolhouse in Belgrade, where it was on view for 10 days.
The "fringe" screens show images from a plant press book, owned by retired tribal historian and ethno-botanist Lindwood Tall Bull, who will come out to the MAM in April for a presentation.
In contrast to the water-themed war shirt, Spang brought to the MAM a second video about fire and climate change.
He edited together footage he shot on his parents' ranch on the Tongue River, both before and after the 2012 Ash Creek complex fire that burned almost 250,000 acres.
His parents had to evacuate and lost their home. For the video, he cut in words from the Cheyenne prophet Sweet Medicine, who warned against "crazy people" who will arrive and ask the tribe to "dig into the earth with them" and doom them to a similar mental fate.
He said it's "basically a cautionary tale" and an important philosophy underpinning the reservation's decades-long fight against coal development.
Spang studied art at Montana State University-Billings for his bachelor's and the University of Madison-Wisconsin for his master's. His work is difficult to pigeonhole, and he's worked in different media through his career, from the photo-sculpture war shirts to performance art like a "techno powwow."
He made the first war shirt in 1998 out of family photographs, stitched together like patches of fabric and decorated with strings of camera film for the fringes. Its general shape — a torso with outstretched arms closely resembles the video war shirt.
Historically, war shirts were "created for a warrior to go into battle and protect their community, and their place, and their people," he said. He calls them "reciprocal garments," made by that community to protect the warrior. The decorative fringes were locks of hair from family and clan members, he said.
That first shirt belongs to his mother, Sandra Spang, and has been shown around the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
At first, Spang was intrigued by the power of the war shirts he'd see in collections. He decided to stitch one with photographs because of the "impact the photo has had on my community," he said, calling it "a mixed bag."
Crucial documentation and lasting misrepresentation are difficult to untangle. Some of the most impactful pictures of Indian people were shot by Edward S. Curtis, from the 1900s through the 1930s. Curtis shot pictures of traditional dress and elders rather than reservation life at the time. The photos he and his contemporaries took "have been what defined us" and often "held us in the past," Spang said.
"He had this romantic notion of what Native people were, and he kind of staged it to adhere to that," he said. As an example, he cited a scene in a tepee. In the final photo, Curtis "burned" out a clock in the background because it wasn't "traditional."
One implication of the photographs was the idea that Indian people were "vanishing," he said, and needed to be documented.
He began creating photographs revisiting Curtis' work he calls "The Reclamation Series." He "re-stages" Curtis' scenes, so far the ones of Cheyenne people, with tiny colorful Western figurines — like toy Army soldiers but in stereotyped "cowboy and Indian" forms, complete with tepees.
"This is what happens when you stage. You sort of turn us into toys," he said.
Another of his multimedia projects was his "techno powwows," which blend Indian and rave culture to challenge stereotypes. For the performances, he dresses in bright and garish jumpsuits and assumes a character he calls the "Indian of the Future," or "the blue guy," after his favored color of face paint.
The persona comments on "one-dimensional representations" of Indian people in the media, particularly in movies. ("You're mystical or angry, one or the other. But you only get one dimension at a time, you know? You don't get to be a real, full human being.") It also draws on the tradition of clowning in the Indian community, in which jokes can be a leveling effect between the powerful and less powerful members of the tribe.
Spang's free approach and curiosity has won him awards that have the word "innovation" in the title: He's a national artist fellow in artistic innovation from the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation; and won an Innovation Award from the Montana Arts Council in 2017.
He doesn't care for the idea of separating Native art into "traditional" and "contemporary," and sees his work, whether it's a rave or a video installation, as part of a long tradition of innovation in Native art.
He sees that when he visits collections of Native art in places like the Smithsonian or the Buffalo Bill Center for the West and looks at "traditional" art.
"They didn't make things completely out of stuff that came from the earth. They were bringing in elements from outside the culture, glass beads, metal, mirrors. Constant innovation and change. They're some of the most innovative people, but people's perception of us is one that's been nurtured along by anthropology and social sciences to a degree, is that we're a primitive group of people," he said.
What's more, a piece might serve not just as beautiful object, but a way to preserve history and stories and have a ceremonial function.
As an illustration, he brings up powwows, where there's a traditional category that preserves dance and regalia styles, and the fancy dance portion, where people are more free in incorporate new ideas and materials.
"That spectrum of powwows, just in the dancing alone, you see it's kind of a definition of who we are as Native people. We keep some things as close to the original as we can, but on the other end of the spectrum you're allowed to [change], that's how a living culture stays a living culture," he said.