Melting: Points in a performance by Warren Arcand by Johanna Householder
We know that things and people are always forced to conceal themselves, have to conceal themselves when they begin. What else could they do? They come into being within a set which no longer includes them and, in order not to be rejected, have to project the characteristics which they retain in common with the set. The essence of a thing never appears at the outset, but in the middle, in the course of its development, when its strength is assured.
- Gilles Deleuze(1)
The day I looked up Laurence Sterne, I was following a reference that Warren Arcand had made in his proposal to Fado about the nature of the wig he proposed to wear in his performance: “…an action in a lard wig – it looks like a powdered wig, it looks like an enlightenment image – of a nation state en route (Looks a little like something Laurence Sterne wears – Tristram Shandy?)” (2)
The day after the performance of Melting Point: an Amusement, he suggested to a group of students that it was the image of this imprecise wig that had begun the process of making the performance. Arcand’s own wig I view now in relation to Sterne’s (indeed a well chosen example on which to model a lard wig for use in performance) and several other wigs that oversaw the enlightenment, the birth of commodity fetishism; the conquest of Canada, and its conversion into a/nother "nation."
wig. 1, Laurence Sterne
Wigs are complex anthropological objects. Their referents abound, far too many of them to run to ground here: half-remembered historical figures, bad theatre, chemotherapy, masked balls, Hallowe’en, civic pride parades, aging dames, reenacters, and drag. One might argue that it's all drag, a view that while correct is also reductive.Though googling wig will lead you to Rupaul’s blog it may also lead you to Big Hair, a rich trove of an essay by Michael Kwass which discusses the historic importance of the wig as one of commodity capitalism’s first successes. The wig marked a transition “between courtly and modern forms of consumption,” and therefore, it may be argued, was one of the first modern objects.(3)
As such, the wig might be seen as a harbinger of the collision and “unnecessary conflict between the people of culture and people of nature”(4) [those with wigs and those without] which Arcand in his “amusement” hoped to resolve “in some measure.” And so I have followed the web of the wig as an envisioned object and Arcand’s process of wresting it from a dream world of images and centuries into a fully sensual realization. He wore it, of course, and by doing so "concealed himself as he began" to speak.
Digression 1: The ru/ole of the wig:
In 1624 Louis XIII went prematurely bald. He disguised this with a wig and started a fashion which became almost universal for European upper & middle class men by the beginning of the 18th Century during his similarly follicley challenged son's reign.
After 1790, both wigs and powder were reserved for older more conservative men, and ladies being presented at court. In 1795, the English government put a tax of hair powder of one guinea per year which effectively caused the demise of both the fashion for wigs and powder by 1800. In France the association of wigs with the aristocracy caused the fashion for both to evaporate during the terror of 1793.
Wigs were made of horsehair, yak hair and human hair, the latter being the most expensive.(5)
Digression 2: Rousseau on the moral benefit of art
In 1749, as Rousseau walked to Vincennes to visit Diderot in prison, he read of an essay competition asking whether the development of the arts and sciences had been morally beneficial. Rousseau claimed that this question caused him to have a moment of sudden inspiration by the roadside, during which he perceived the principle of the natural goodness of humanity on which all his later philosophical works were based. As a consequence of this, he answered the competition question in the negative…(6)
wig. 2, Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Digression 3: Rousseau's vow
In the winter of 1751… Jean-Jacques Rousseau fell gravely ill. Bedridden, delirious with fever, and facing the prospect of his own death, the philosopher resolved to change the course of his life. He renounced "all projects of fortune and advancement," including his new job, and vowed to spend what little time he had left in a state of "independence and poverty." After his convalescence, Rousseau remained true to his pledge and embarked on what he called his "personal reform." His first act was to change his wardrobe: "I began my reform with my finery," he wrote. "I gave up my gold trimmings and white stockings, I took a short wig, I laid aside my sword, I sold my watch." Later recounting the same episode, he stated: "I left le monde and its pomp. I renounced all finery: no more sword, no more watch, no more white stockings, gold trimmings, hairdo." Instead, he wore "a simple wig and clothes of good rough wool."
I invoke Rousseau's reform, however, not only to raise its philosophical implications but also to make a specific sartorial observation. Although Rousseau renounced fashionable clothing and accessories, he did not jettison the wig. Instead, he abandoned his old wig to adopt a simpler and shorter model, the round wig, a gesture that raises a number of questions. Why, if Rousseau was intent on rejecting the artifice of le monde, did he not simply discard the wig altogether and wear his natural hair? Why opt instead for a different style?…(7)
The wig was at the centre (or slightly above the centre) of this performance, and it was, as I say, a lard wig. It had the light, fluffy appearance of whipped or shaving cream, but as it melted before the heat lamp fan set just to Arcand’s right, it gave off a fatty odour; that slightly greasy, stale scent recalling unwashed hair or a flat-top grill, but also reminiscent of the smells from the abattoir down at Niagara and Wellington, a few blocks away, which as downtown Torontonians know, envelop the heights and depths of malodourousness in the summer heat, the vapours of which can reach all the way up to the former shores of Lake Ontario above Dupont Street. It is the smell of rendering. Of rendering a nation-state by rending existing local multiplicities apart. This I believe is a subtext of Arcand’s wardrobe. As the wig melted it left rivulets of liquid, sparkles, and stars upon his cheeks.
Arcand stood (on stage at the Drake Underground) in front of a large canvas backdrop that depicted a vague landscape.(8) To his right was a heating fan, and he spoke into a microphone. He made some introductory remarks, seemingly meant to flatter his audience, in a manner that suited his dress – formally. For he was dressed not only in a wig, but in a frock coat and breeches, hose, buckle shoes, a foulard and I believe, a waistcoat with a blouse underneath. He complimented the dress of the Torontonians – “black on black, on black” an observation he promised to take with him and share with his fellow Vancouverians, whom, he mentioned, were “working with taupes on taupe.”
He then raised the question of voice: “with what voice shall I address you, I have so many.”
Digression 4: the question of voice ...
[In Who Says What and The Question of Voice Denis Donoghue] studies some of the relations and discrepancies between an oral culture and a culture of print; and certain recent attempts to undermine the privilege of voice and the definition of presence in terms of speech uttered and heard....
Professor Donoghue pursues these discrepancies further; examines the rivalry of voice and text, the different rhetorics of authority… the question of tone..., anonymous and pseudonymous styles, parodic voices....
He examines the embarrassment
readers audiences feel when they can't ascribe printed words to any particular voice, real or imagined.(9)
[my insertions and deletions]
Styles, tones and privleges, anonymous and parodic are the thought balloons hovering over Arcand's head, so I veer from Rousseau's troubling attachment to his wig to search the “question of voice.” The second site in the list leads me to the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab where questions of voice appear to loom large for web content writers who wish to enhance their own credibility. By this point the Google list seemed to be mirroring the narrative stream of the Arcand performance. The accomplishment of credibility is a necessary condition for the actor, but as proposed in the quote from Deleuze above, there is a paradox between credibility and dissembling in performance; between "being oneself" at the outset, or concealing the self to "project characteristics in common," before revealing one's essence.
All of this leads me looping back to Arcand’s nuanced question. One which he answered for us; “this voice is quite honest, I think,” a paradoxical and pivotal moment. Though accepting that the voice is honest, its assertion also draws upon a persona, that of the public intellectual (an idea Arcand mentioned in later correspondence.) The P.I. is someone who might enlighten and edify, who takes a position while amusing. But this notion, this figure – like the wig – is imbedded in a history.
I defend my digressions with wig 1:
Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine; - they are the life, the soul of reading; - take them out of this book for instance, - you might as well take the book along with them.
- Laurence Sterne
Digression 5: The Public Intellectual
What we now identify as an intellectual is a twentieth century phenomenon that has its roots in a very specific constellation of incident, place and time – circumstances that continue to colour the social perception of what and who an intellectual might be. The incident was the Dreyfus Affair, France, 1898. An incident replete with military cover-up, charges of anti-semitism, counter espionage and an island prison, all with eerie parallels in our own times. Georges Clemenceau himself coined the term in reference to the outpouring of support from academic and literary circles following the publication of Emile Zola’s open letter, J’Accuse (which indicted the French military for fabricating the case against Captain Dreyfuss). This “protest of intellectuals” appeared in Clemenceau’s own radical newspaper.
In recounting this history in The New Criterion, James Piereson writes:
The term stuck as a description of academics and writers who are active in political causes. What was new and important about the protest was that the signatories sought to use their academic qualifications or professional achievements to suggest that their views should be given privileged standing in a political context. Their protest generated an immediate counterattack from conservatives who associated the term “intellectual” with disorder, treason, and abstract reasoning.(10) [my emphasis]
Disorder (or re-order), very ocasionally treason, and abstract reasoning are also the hallmarks of good performance so it is just that Warren Arcand might propose to inhabit the role of the early 20th c. public intellectual as a meeting ground for the 18th c. wig-wearing modern colonizer and empire builder (what were they thinking!) and the 21st c. Desiring Machine.
Nothing is so perfectly amusing as a total change of ideas.
- Laurence Sterne
Digression 6: “Is it not the case that we are the beneficiaries of a constant state of war?”(11)
In the brief Historical Account of 18th c. Canada from which the following excerpts were taken, there is no mention of Indian, Native, or Aboriginal persons or lands. It is barely possible for me to fathom the depth of disconnection which would cause this to be so.
The Peace of Utrecht (1713) gave Britain Acadia, the Hudson Bay area, and Newfoundland. To strengthen their position the French built additional forts in the west (among them Detroit and Niagara).
wig. 3, Montcalm
The decisive battle of the entire struggle took place in 1759, when Wolfe defeated Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham, bringing about the fall of Quebec to the British.
wig.4, unidentified withness to the death of Wolfe
In the Treaty of Paris in 1763, France ceded all its North American possessions east of the Mississippi to Britain, while Louisiana went to Spain.
The Quebec Act (1774), granted important concessions to the French and extended Quebec's borders westward and southward to include all the inland territory to the Ohio and the Mississippi. This act infuriated the residents of the Thirteen Colonies (the future United States). In 1775 the American Continental Congress had as its first act not a declaration of independence but the invasion of Canada.
This period was also one of further exploration. Alexander Mackenzie made voyages in 1789 to the Arctic Ocean and in 1793 to the Pacific... George Vancouver secured for Britain a firm hold on what is now British Columbia.
wig. 5, Vancouver (12)
From sea to sea to sea, between the Event which is the formation of the nation-state (the new World) through the processes of colonization, there is still the Body and the Trace,(13) the pre-existing (still existing) nations un-formed or deformed. There occured a psychic shift, and this is what I believe Arcand is revealing. In the process of realizing the nation of Canada, the Indigenous nations become at first imaginary and then (more violently) unimaginable to the colonizers.
At this point Arcand, having identified his speaking voice as “honest”, makes a sound into the mic for which there really is no word – it is a diaphragmatic vocalization somewhere between sobbing, cooing and panting – an abrupt break with the graciousness and control of his previous speech which invokes his body, the honest body, a Deleuzian desiring machine, “a machine of love, a machine of truth.”(14)
“Its so nice to be back in nature … with you” he says, at once indicating the quasi-naturalistic backdrop painting and our presence (as a body without organs), an audience.
But then he questions the authenticity of the chair which is also on stage. The silly chair insists upon its oneness. And so he must “do damage and violence” to this chair. He menaces the chair, and hisses at it. “We cannot let the chair continue as it is. We have needs…It is a time of war…don’t be afraid, in fact, it can be a beautiful thing.”
Our passion and principals are constantly in a frenzy, but begin to shift and waver, as we return to reason.
- Laurence Sterne
The time has run out on the wig. The tension between the persons of nature and the persons of culture is dissolving. The melting timing device of this performance has left rivulets of grease and glitter on his face and clumps of fat mixed with sparkle dust on the floor. Warren Arcand bids goodnight with a flourish of handkerchief and a blown kiss.
Lessons of wisdom have the most power over us when they capture the heart through the groundwork of a story, which engages the passions.
- Laurence Sterne
(1) Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 1: The Movement-Image. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.
(3) Michael Kwass. "Big Hair: A Wig History of Consumption in Eighteenth-Century France." The American Historical Review June 2006. (accessed June 8, 2007).
(4) Warren Arcan. Melting Point: An Amusement. January 24, 2006 (Transcribed by Johanna Householder from video document of live performance).
(7)Michael Kwass, "Big Hair: A Wig History of Consumption in Eighteenth-Century France," The American Historical Review June 2006
(accessed June 8, 2007).
(8) The canvas landscape was painted by Mary Porter in response to a description given by Arcan.
(10) James Piereson. The rise & fall of the intellectual." The New Criterion September 2006.
(accessed June 27, 2007).
(11) Arcand. Performance transcript.
(13) Alain Badiou, “The Subject of Art” accessed June 20, 2007.
(14) Arcand. Performance transcript.
Benedict Anderson. Imagined Communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. London and New York: Verso,1991.
Gilles Deleuze. Cinema 1: The Movement-Image. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.
Daniel N. Paul. We Were Not the Savages: Collision between European and Native American Civilizations. Halifax, N.S.: Fernwood Publishing, 2006.
Johanna Householder has been making performances and other artwork in Canada since the late 1970s. Working with Louise Garfield and Janice Hladki, she was a member of the notorious, satirical feminist performance ensemble, The Clichettes, who performed under variable circumstances, throughout the 1980s. While The Clichettes practiced their own brand of pop culture detournment, Householder has maintained a unique performance practice, often collaborating with other artists.
She is one of the many founders of the 7a*11d International Festival of Performance Art and with Tanya Mars, she co-edited Caught in the Act: an anthology of performance by Canadian women, published by YYZ Books in 2004. A collection of short video works, Approximations 1 - 3, produced in collaboration with b.h. yael, has been screened internationally. Most recently she performed in Budapest, Bratislava and Cluj-Napoca, and in Helsinki at the La>Bas Festival. She is a Professor at the Ontario College of Art and Design.