Malcolm Sutton on Anya Liftig’s Holler Rat (the performance) – A Live Response

FADO has invited writer Malcolm Sutton to compose a text about Anya Liftig’s performance, a live reading of Holler Rat her memoir. As Anya’s performance is about about (writing and then) reading a book, Malcolm’s process for writing will also take shape as a time-based activity. Malcolm will be present for the 6-hours of the performance, writing alongside the unfolding of the performance—writing an article about the reading of a book. Malcolm’s text was “published” here at the conclusion of the performance.

Watching via YouTube because of being under the weather. Ambient gymnasium sound, with no one on screen, a vast room with mostly symmetrical view. No one on screen, but a voice over the PA announcing a code blue on Queen Street. Do not know if that is part of the performance, though anything incidental is sort of part of it.

Four mics set up, maybe six, maybe eight.

When Anya begins this will all change. I recently tried to describe a live improvised music set as it happened, as though a sports play-by-play, and know that as soon as you start describing, you stop hearing, and when you stop hearing, you become lost, you no longer know how things unfolded as you were thinking of words to describe the performance. Description has that reputation of killing narrative.

And now at the far end, there is Anya, lying on her back. When she appeared I don’t know, and now starfishing on the floor and the video feed creates jumps in time, someone else appeared and then disappeared.

Not being in the room, being in another room at the other end of Toronto, with my own ambient sounds. My youngest, clearing his throat, getting over an illness, in another room. The sound of whatever he is watching. Anya in the gymnasium at CAMH, making her way like a sea creature toward one of the mics. The reflection of the wood floor is almost like the reflection of a still lake.

Code white announcement over the PA. The gymnasium doesn’t not become part of CAMH during the performance.

There are strands pulled at, the mic leads, there is a book opened, feet on the book, everything symmetrical until Anya begins pushing the mic stand, with its heavy base, across to the left – no, tracking the centre circle of the court.

We see Anya standing, the book an object, we hear her breath.

She begins reading, begins her memoir with a family member dying. “The history of my mother’s family…”

Anya moves the mic.

Our treatment of photographs, inserting them in books, an Encyclopedia Britannica, the dead, she asks what we do with a photo of the dead. She needs the picture of the dead grandfather to know herself. She needs to transform it.

At a university writing centre, where I work, I’m often telling students to transform their notes into another form, to spatialize them, to make connections between the isolated points that they’ve written about chemistry, health studies, biology.

And then elsewhere, when I work as an editor, I sometimes tell a writer that even when they are writing fiction they write towards the what is true from their own experiences.

The sound now, of Anya in the gymnasium, duct tape pulled, yanked, pushed against the floor. It is red. In my house, I’ve moved downstairs where the ambient sounds are the clock ticking and the hum of the stereo amplifier that I didn’t turn off.

Anya is barefoot, which makes me wonder how warm it is in the gymnasium of CAMH. She has moved to a trolley and is able to move with the trolley as she reads.

I need to say: Anya’s memoir is serious, and there is a search for meaning. She is searching for meaning in family, at least at the beginning. There is a wonderful moment in the last minute when she struggles to say “superstitious” and it becomes a much longer word that my brain anticipates as “supercilious” but then she completes the words.

Now I find myself listening to her describing another performance, and when she says “I make prolonged eye contact with each one,” in the audience, she herself does that in this performance, but because I am watching on YouTube, I don’t know if the screen has suddenly freezed. In the described performance, the audience pours glue on Anya…

Another announcement on the PA, from CAMH.

…on her body, and it seems to me like such a strange distance, layers, Anya describing an old performance in a new performance, years later in another space, and me responding to the current performance through YouTube, not in the same space, but at home on the other side of the city because I woke with a fever, now missing the moment when she sits on some kind of chair on castors and moves about the gymnasium, pushing the trolley, or dolly, or wheelie, or whatever it is, like a library cart, which is also on castors. And it looks fun and awkward, awkward now that she’s run up against a mic cable, which she has to work her way over.

Anya sandwiches herself between shelves on the library cart and begins again and then opts for the lower shelf that has more space. She trips over some words and laughs, which I love. I crave anomalies. They are openings to something.

“Hollow” becomes “holler” in the Appallachians. And I can’t figure out how to spell Appallachians.

The cart squeaks. There is so little sound, but the mics pick up those sounds. Gymnasiums often have sound buffers on the ceilings or upper walls because the sounds are amplified and hang in the air for so long. 

You would not know the posture of Anya just by listening. Now she is lying on her back, reading into the mic. It is clear. Now she lies on her front, and her voice does sound different, but you would never know what the posture is, that it mimics a carefree child in the summer, reading a book, feet swinging up into the air.

She speaks the voices of her ancestors, hill people in America.

A disease from inbreeding, that makes one’s skin blue-tinted, with a name that can’t be pronounced easily.

And then when she rolls to her side, then back, the mic gets closer to her mouth, and you now something has happened with her posture.

The ancestors speak through her with an accent. I know so little about my ancestors. I know how my grandparents sounded, their Essex county, England accents. I don’t know that I would be able to write what they say, and speak in the way they do.

I don’t think often of my ancestors. I’m so intrigued by those who find out about themselves through them. I feel as though I am always like this, describing something in the present.

And I look away, because next door a smoke detector is going off, and I look back and Anya has disappeared off screen. She returns with one of those wonderful janitorial super-wide floor sweepers, as long wide as she is tall, and she is cleaning the gymnasium floor. Systematically, back and forth, and that brings her closer to the camera that I see everything through. I realize I do not know what she looks like, what those patches of colour are on her grey outfit. She has been so far away this whole time.

Now more duct tape, which she uses her feet to press to the wood. Since she just cleaned the floor, it will stick better than the first round. Something X-like, like a target. Or a spot marker.

She sends a stool on wheels across the floor. She sends an office chair on wheels across the floor. She sends a dolly on wheels across the floor. Through the centre, so that each wheeled object kind of jumps through the duct tape. The second time doing this, the chair lands right in the centre of the target. And then some kind of shelf on wheels that looks like a prison gate, which she leaves in the centre. It all seems so satisfying.

As an adult, it’s easy for gymnasiums to not be part of one’s life. Then as a parent, you return to them, in schools. Indoor soccer, indoor basketball.

More duct taping. I should try to avoid “more.” It doesn’t feel right.

Anya is able to partially lie down on the prison gate-like thing on wheels. These pauses are wonderful.

Anya rotates the prison gate-like trolley so that the bars are now between the camera and her. The trolley transforms the space. Like the office chair. Like the microphones. They all seem like guests in the house of basketball nets. As does the writer who reads her memoir in its entirety, and the person who occasionally walks along the side with a long camera lens, documenting in a different way from how I am documenting this. All guests. All the different mediums happening. Far away duct tape as a medium.

I’m sad not to be there in person. I miss the spaces of art making. The rooms with suspended expectations. A gymnasium and duct tape. The physicality of pulling duct tape from its roll.

One starts associating this narrative of rural Americans with this gymnasium, or at least see this gymnasium as the end point of the narrative. The gymnasium says: How did Anya come from those faraway people to arrive here off of Queen Street?

I wonder if that gate-like dolly is normally used for storing basketballs. At this moment Anya is moving it back and forth across the court.

I write “Anya,” though I have not met her. I tell my students to use the author’s last name in their essays, out of respect and convention. Liftig continues to move the dolly back and forth and now pauses in the centre. Coming back to the centre. I await the sound of her breath at a mic; I anticipate she will begin reading again.

I also miss the time of art.

Her breath, as she reads now, seems a bit strained. It may be her position in the gate-like dolly in the centre of the gym. Now speaking of her mother’s attempt to lose her rural accent after entering the big city. Her leg through the gate.

Not seeing her face. The voice is everything. But not everything. The gym, the gate dolly, the body. But no facial expressions to go on.

I wonder now if Liftig has practiced reading all the way through, which would take a long time. I recall practicing short pieces seven times before reading them in front of an audience.

I don’t write as Liftig reads a section on her mother wanting to leave her world – the holler – behind to and go to university.

Liftig sets up lights at the back, a couple of goose-neck standing lamps and a few set on the floor. More duct tape. Or packing tape. It reflects like packing tape. This time creating a tent-like structure using the standing lamps.

The last reading that I went to was a couple of weeks ago. One of the readers I had worked with as editor on her collection of short fiction. She was launching her book alongside two poets. Each read in the packed side room at the Tranzac for about 7 minutes.

The taping continues. Liftig becoming a spider, the packing tape the web connecting several objects – the lamps and chairs. There is something habitat-like about it. But also working oneself into a space that becomes hard to exit.

The camera suddenly zooms closer, because she is at the far end of the court. She stands in the  centre of the web and begins to read about her childhood, the finding of a lump near her groin. And the web of tape becomes stitches, nerves, mistakes, a world barely held together, the possibility of losing the use of a leg, unclear lessons.

She pauses in reading. She snacks from a white paper bag. I’ve had some popcorn. She drinks some water. I have a glass of water. She sits where she had stood. I think she crumples up the back. She moves closer to the centre. Past the centre. Microphone sound as she carefully places it on the floor.

She pulls some of tape away and balls it up, as she does so some gets stuck to her bare foot, which is one reason why her feet are bare perhaps, for incidental things to happen. And now she sits right in the centre and tapes her legs to the floor, several times, thighs, shins, ankles. This looks like white duct tape. Tape that can be torn across a grain. She continues taping beyond when you expect her to end.  Spider becomes fly. Spider is fly.

There is not a steady rhythm to the pulling a tearing, but there is a regularity, and it keeps going, and it reminds me of an art assignment, perhaps from NSCAD, to use the entirely of a ball point pen for a drawing. But here it is the entirety of a roll of tape, and not about drawing lines and density and whatever that carries with it, but taping the body down and whatever that carries with it. And she lies back and tapes across her waist, and it makes me think of what happens to villains in Spiderman movies, stuck to the wall, but here it is the floor of a basketball court at CAMH. And here is takes several minutes, and it is done to the self, and follows a life-altering surgery.

My Word crashes, and I miss the end of her Liftig taping herself down. But she is still down, now reading from taped repose.

Now one sees a pattern with the tape, at least an increase in the deliberateness with which it is applied. There is a progression. Things have been personal for the whole reading. It is, after all, a memoir. But now we have left ancestors behind, and the story of the mother is in the past, and the childhood has been examined, and now we are in adulthood, at the Yale Psychiatric Institution, after self-harm, and the tape has moved on from structural web, one that semi confines, to a seriously confining work.

I see the bottom of Anya’s feet, pale white in the arch and darker at the heel and balls. She is still and quiet and we are left at the psychiatric institution. And then she picks up again, there in the institution. Her feet moving back in forth perhaps in rhythm with her speech.

Memoir’s dialogue. I always wonder how close it is to what happened, and whether it is any less true than exposition. I never remember words from conversations, but some people are able to remember exact words.

De-webbing now. And it occurs to me, as she rolls up the tape, that sometimes there is comfort in that feeling of being confined, as with a heavy blanket. Anya rolls up the tape and bends it inward to create a ring.

The space of a memoir is special, particular. It is a form of knowledge. When I teach reflective writing at university I contrast it with most other forms of writing at the university. Reflective writing, like memoir, values personal experience as a form of knowledge. Most university writing is not like that. Most uses different kinds of evidence to form knowledge.

Anya stands on the library trolley, having lifted the mic stand up there. She is crouching, so perhaps she has taken the mic from the stand. It is hard to see across the gym. Her story has moved to another institution for therapy.

I end my discussion of reflective writing there, with it being a form of knowledge not often recognized at university. I don’t push it further. I don’t say that it is generalizable, because I don’t know what steps to take to make it generalizable. Perhaps it is enough in its particularity, for its sometimes-trueness. For its true-in-at-least-one-circumstanceness. I haven’t thought this through. Liftig is walking around the gym, some things in her hands, the lights, maybe more tape.

Now seated in the office chair, cross-legged.

Had to rush upstairs, as my eldest was frantically coughing.

Her office chair suggests something else. More control. She pushes herself around on the office chair, using her toes and heels to propel her. Many mics, one person. She lands at one of the mics, and it looks as though she is using the duct tape ring to lean her book against. Or something like that. She is distant, near the three-point line on the left side.

There are windows at the back of the courts, and the light is beginning to fade now.

I’m always amazed at what people are able to remember of their lives. My memory is so poor, I could never write a memoir. Only a daily journal. I often wonder if people remember things or logically work them out, those things of the past. This must have happened to explain this other thing. In fiction, for a while, once we first discovered Javier Marias, The Dark Back of Time, we were so drawn to misremembering the past, the faultiness of memory, maybe this happened. The slippery line between fiction and reality. But now that slippery line has been reduced to very little, or instead of a line there is an overlay of fiction over reality and reality over fiction. A simultaneity. Is there a paradigm after this?

Anya is using the gate-like trolley now for the objects that she’s been manipulating since the performance began. And now she has unpacked it all, organized it. There is more of a sense of order than previously. Almost a dollhouse logic. The objects standing like people in a semi-circle.

Someone is at my door.

When I return to YouTube, Anya is sitting on the skateboard-like trolley, in the middle, among the objects, which become a kind of attentive audience, and she describes a performance and the audience of that performance. The detail in describing a performance, this one with a salmon.

Pushing with her hands to roll across the floor on the skateboard-like trolley.

Now hidden behind the recycling bin.

The space of a personal story, a memoir. You listen and accept. You wonder what was left out. But I don’t really wonder what is left out of this memoir because the choices seem always to go to the difficult parts. 

One experiences a durational piece to feel change, to let the mind drift, to encourage thoughts that might not otherwise be allowed in other kinds of time. I’m still surrounded by the ordinariness of being at home, now my children have run into the room that I’m writing it, now at the beginning of the fifth hour of the performance. My eldest son, nine, sees the performance on the screen and asks if it is real. I explain what is now happening, with Anya pushing herself across the room, a light saber-like light in her hand that has no doubt caught his eye. It is real, yes. A performance.

His questions are warranted. There is a mysteriousness to what is happening, and Anya is a small figure in the space. It is hard to see what is happening, particularly coming in in the middle of things. He quickly loses interest and becomes a meat-eating dinosaur with his younger brother.

Anya is now taping herself into the prison gate-like dolly. Another kind of web.

In the centre again, free of tape. A description of works as an artist, free of schooling. The sensorium of art in contrast to the world from which one emerges, and all of the overlapping too.

Still now, cross-legged, book resting on lap, hands over knees is a meditation pose. No ambient sound in the gym. A slow wilting, then yawning. A strange kind of peace, tentative. What feels like a reset.

Now the book orbits as Liftig reads the next chapter, how she attaches herself with yarn to art fairs. Orbiting and attachment. With the standing lamp shining sun-like, the objects become planets in orbit. The objects are of an in-between category, not belonging to the gym, but likely belonging to the institution attached to the gym. Improvisational objects that accumulate into Liftig’s orbit. When the solar system is taken apart, it is done so manually, one part at a time, at an institutional pace. The pace of things at the end of the day.

Another announcement on the PA.

I wonder how different my experience would have been had I been there in person. How different the writing would be. Would I be feeling different things. The microphone feels like a lifeline to this performance. And the camera from the single perspective.

Cross-legged on the floor, in the centre, Liftig begins speaking. The description of a performance with a live lobster. And she tears leaves out of her book and places each one in front of a fan, following her last word, “destroy.” The pages have a life of their own, and the effect of watching them streamed on YouTube makes the motion choppier, more erratic. I have probably described too much in the past almost-six hours. There is the ambient sound of the fan. There is something funny about this destruction, with the fan creating exteriority, wind, inside the gym, and the floor being low friction, so that the paper easily zooms across it. There’s also a small flutter when each page is released. The fan can be pushed around like a lawn mower, which Liftig does for a short time, and then it seems like it unplugged itself. And then it’s over, with clapping from the audience that I can’t see.

Malcolm Sutton works as a writing instructor at University of Toronto Scarborough. He is the fiction editor at Book*hug Press, where he also designs many books. His fiction and articles have appeared in Maisonneuve, Joyland, C Magazine, and Border Crossings. He is the author of the novel Job Shadowing and is currently finishing a nonfiction book on listening to improvised music in Toronto.

Our Town Revisited: Bang the Drum Madly

Tribal. Turbulence. Tambour. 

Each drum movement is a chance to further establish ourselves and our intentions in the (psychic) space chosen.

—Wednesday Lupypciw

Wednesday Lupypciw (pronounced lu-pip-chew) loves art, drums, punk rock, and the aspect of community that glue it altogether. So much so that these tenets are the port of call around her latest site-specific performance: QUEER NOISE SOLIDARITY. A loud and confident initiative, QNS was curated by FAG, a.k.a Feminist Art Gallery (spearheaded by Allyson Mitchell and Deirdre Logue) and was proudly matronized by FADO Performance Art Centre. (For more information on what it means to matronize an event or artist, check out FAG’s mission statement on their Facebook page.)

Wednesday’s everyday multi-media art practice involves making low-fi video, film, and performance, with an ultra modernist approach to textile creation—weaving, machine knitting, and embroidery. She travels abound installing, presenting, lecturing, and sometimes making fun yet formal public happenings. Along with visual artists Anthea Black and Nicole Burisch, Lupypchiw is one-third sparring partner of the performance art collective LIDS, or the Ladies Invitational Deadbeat Society. LIDS identifies themselves as a loosely knit group of purposefully lazy womenfolk. A third-wave feminist outfit that combines notions of female-ness with a blasphemed commentary that is smart, sloppy, and garish enough to awaken the unfunny academic giant within. For Lupypciw, QNS was “the next phase” in her practice, venturing out on her own to manifest a battalion of women armed with drum kits. 

I just want to do a living sculpture, with drums, with drummers facing one another. I’d like to provide more opportunities for a group of performers to engage with each other—to be focused on the tasks at hand, developing the group brain and sound.

—Wednesday Lupypciw

Wednesday’s vision on this Friday evening in May is a public performance in Christie Pits Park involving 12 rock drum kits that are set up in triangular form. Four drum kits inhabit each of the three sides of the triangle. For each kit, there is a drummer, 12 in total. The drummers face Wednesday, as well as one another, in order to track rhythmic shifts and other sensory cues. 

Enter the drummers’ dozen, made up of all shapes and sizes. A delight as the drummers are all of a female persuasion and/or simply female-identified, with a queersome bent and heart for all things pink, punk and percussive. The casting is unconventional, as those invited to participate possess a variety of approaches—from rock drummers to sound artists, artists to activists—and each possess varied skill levels. This is combined with what is most interesting—a generational diversity. The drummers range in age from 10 years old to over 60. A wonderful and deliberate equity ensures that everyone and no one is “the star”.

Manicured and benign as a golf course, this dip of robust land known as Christie Pits Park has a history of racist violence. How ironic and strange that the vast cleanliness of the park resembles a typified imitation of heaven. Irony aside, tonight the Pits will become heavenly as it undergoes a transformational ritual making it a “safer psychic space”, as per what this artistic mandate is after. 

In August of 1933, neighbours Francesca Di Prima and Maisie Cohen are shaking by the outskirts of the grassy bowl. Bloodied ant-sized males are swinging bats in the baseball diamond that was once a sand quarry. Their teenage boys can’t escape the bone-cracking fury. No end to the violence in sight, perched high and peering down, they holler until their throats crack, screaming for their kin to escape. But they are unheard under The Pit’s hellish battle acoustics, blaring charcoal noise like war drums. 

“The kids just came out here to play ball.”

“But we’re different. They don’t want us here.”

“One day, you’ll see—there will be harmony.”

“Keep dreaming. Crazy hate like this never runs out.”

Christie Pits is situated at the northwestern tip of what is the Annex region of Toronto. Its name triggers images that will always carry the burden of the park’s riots back in the 30’s. At that time, like many of the growing urban communities in the city, the Annex was populated with Nazi sympathizers. Imagine raging white goons swinging bats at anyone unlike them, namely Jews and Italian immigrants. So much for “Toronto the Good”. 

“The Pits” are also known for numerous muggings and rapes. Two QNS drummers were mugged and attacked here, and not long ago. A site-specific performance can by no means erase the memory of such trauma, but what about eradicating any trepidation and fear about being in the park itself? Can one’s weapon and talisman be blazing drum beats?

Regarding landmarks and memory, can Lupypciw’s experience heal? Transforming victims into the victorious? 


The first incarnation of this event took place in Lupypciw’s hometown for the independent music festival Sled Island during the summer of 2012. Her idea garnered a spot on the bill, perhaps in part because of the title: Shitty Feminist Drum Circle. Was this a low-self esteem confessional? Or something else, directed at… who? Then upon then seeing the words on the page, you get the joke. It’s not hard to imagine these exact words coming out of some typical rocker dude’s pie hole as he nastily describes a parliament of women drumming in a circle, maybe sporting Birkenstocks, and—gasp!—with no apparent awareness of him whatsoever. Of course, this broad brushstroke of an image is an assumption based upon many assumptions that are both ridiculously and unfortunately true. And because Wednesday’s manner of casting welcomes both the technically proficient with the novice all drumming together, it makes one wonder if this early title for the work was meant to poke fun at the pedagogical and/or patriarchal manner of how we learn music. Or was it about seeing who you can piss off by calling a performance installation a “shitty feminist drum circle”? Art has no obligation to anyone to appear reasonable. We f*ck shit up in our line of business: They don’t call it risk for nothing, right Punk? 

Wednesday’s premiere performance for Sled Island was a slightly more subdued version of QNS: 6 drummers, set up in a circle. One of the players featured in the Calgary premiere also appears in the Toronto follow-up: Lupypciw’s mentor Rita McKeogh, a Halifax-based artist/educator who performed in the women’s jazz/rock fusion group DEMIMONDE and is known for her challenging multi-media performance pieces, which have been exhibited worldwide. Sincerely heart-felt, the student creates a role for the role model, bringing the relationship full circle. 

In Calgary, I think I knew what I wanted to do deep inside, but in Toronto I admitted what I wanted to do. Out loud, and cultivated it. I made the stakes higher, the work became very necessary. In Toronto, I had a lot of feelings, whereas in Calgary I had a lot of thoughts. I screamed longer, louder, unabashedly in Toronto.

—Wednesday Lupypciw

Post-Calgary, Toronto

Lupypciw’s next step of evolution with the work is to replace the circular set-up with a triangular one. The triangle anchors many organic and manmade creations with a mathematical reliability. Triangles are meta-fractals of nature: leaves to trees perform the same mimicry, as mountains are fractal to rocks and boulders. Many ancient and occultist rituals apply triangle and/or prism-like apparatus, which bring mystique and magic to the practice. Lastly and perhaps most significant, the LGBT triangle as an emblem is an elevated moniker thus inverted of its hideous Nazi roots where it was used as a tool to brand and track people of otherness. Lupypciw’s appliqué of the triangle as a theatre set embodies a highly politicized mode of what queer solidarity looks like.

This new triangular set-up echoes aspects of the drumming circle applied in Calgary. Wednesday elevates her role of Shamanic Guide with her tribe of drummers and with us the audience. Are we the collective embodiment of a pagan village in ceremony? Heard chanting all the way to the next village? She has transformed the front “man” role into a queer traveling Carney, yelling and running around, compelling the space with a different intention. The playing of orchestral music is not unlike the building of a small community. As a musical pageant, QNS is a social democracy. Wednesday keeps it fun as a “Miss Mischievous Speaker of the House.” She races in and around the triangle to her congress of drummers, coercing like a motivational gym coach, guiding like their Sherpa, wearing a hoodie, equipped with a whistle.

Under a silver spring sun in harmony with a chilly pastel sky, the audience anticipates what this pulsating cavalcade will be. The Drummers prepare, setting up inside a triangular boundary of rope and spikes hammered into the earth. The 10 year old drummer positions her crash symbols with an enthusiasm beyond playing the latest Xbox. Lupypciw kicks off the event with megaphone in hand. She declares the space of the park as OUR space. The performance follows, in three movements. Each movement starts with a collective chant by led by herself and echoed by the drummers’ dozen.

1. “HEY! HEY! HEY! HEY!” with pure waves of just snares or cymbals. Mobilizing.

2. “ALL HERE NOW!” group drum tag, communication between sides of the triangle.

3. “ALL! NIGHT! LONG!” sunset observance with heavy/dark kicks and floor toms, growing into max noise sendoff. Making noise to resonate into the night, all though the night.

The performance contains three extended play-movements. Each movement is about 20 minutes long, and even with the designed short breaks in between, there really is no stopping. Rather, the drummers sit and click their sticks together in time during the breaks, while one goes off to the washroom, or gets something to drink, then the drummers organically reassemble and start the next movement. 

Each movement is its own marathon, and this marathon is on message: beats are bullets that paint pictures of rage, and/or gratitude. This drummers’ village is a metaphor for the adversity that queer life and/or alternative thinking has endured against corporatism’s monolithic shadow. Toronto has a unique site-specific performance art legacy, peppered by a queer presence nearly three decades old. Many of these actions have involved spiritualizing neighborhoods as newly protected areas for refuge. Some artists who have maximized this local history-based gesture would be Jess Dobkin, Will Munro, Leif Harmsen, Sky Gilbert, amongst the many others.

This evening here in The Pits is curiously sentimental, tremendous even, as a severity of styles are played, passionately and in unison. Skin shivers from the militaristic patterns mixed with tribal drum rhythms. It harkens to the genesis, the Mother of all minimal bamm-bamming: Mo Tucker.

Alternative punk drumming took its cues from the harbinger of thunderous minimalist drumming, Maureen (Mo) Tucker of The Velvet Underground (1964-1973, 5 recorded albums). Tucker took basic rock drumming patterns, made them small in their bigness and big in their smallness. Her finite style, puncturing accents in a moody hollow of reverb, re-addressed rock n’roll as depressingly theatrical—an even darker expression of 60’s Girl Group Producer Phil Spector’s tragic resonances. It was no surprise then that the VU were featured in performance art happenings during the 60’s, like Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable.

At the time, critics and rock contemporaries alike abhorred The Velvets for a sound that was clearly ahead of its day. Less than 10 years later, after the group’s demise, Tucker’s stamp birthed a zenith of female drummers during a sliver of time where a post-punk/no-wave canon of girl bands (circa 1981) fashioned their homage to her shtick in smashing a bent out of shape hit, that was minimalist, militaristic, and tribal. This new mode of angry young girls thumping skins a la Mo Tucker was a reaction to the exhausting male posturing drum solos that smeared the mid to late 70’s era. The presence of the Bonhams and Moons turned drumming into an unidentifiable disturbance, lacking compass and distinction. It was this next generation of women who trashed that norm with an innate style and arrogance, elevating performance all the same. And so by 1981, it was comic how drum trills and bombastic solos that we had been accustomed to were now perceived as a clichéd caricature. Some key hitters: Ikue Mori (DNA), Lislot Ha (Kleenex, Lilliput), Palmolive (The Slits, The Raincoats) GB Jones (Fifth Column), and June Miles Kingston (Mo-Dettes).

As drummers of this breed pioneered a style that was stubborn and uncompromising, this gesture innovated how other instruments were to surrender to its mission, planting a completely new sound that was intrinsically post-punk. It was inevitable that someone was going to break the heterosexist sound barrier. This was the underground music and fashion culture of its day, solely popular with renegade feminists and late night pirate and college radio enthusiasts. Concurrently, there was another interesting ilk of drum-heavy experimentally charged women’s groups, reinventing jazz, folk-rock fusions and reggae rhythms. The groups who come to mind would be The Moral Lepers (Vancouver), Demimonde (Toronto) and Essential Logic (UK). 

This female drum style was strikingly precise in its mathematics, influencing its canon of music, thus confusing the male rock critic argument about gender-based dexterity in playing. The good news was that when it came to feminist music festivals, the female band shortages left promoters no other choice but to program all these styles together under a general women’s (or Womyn’s) banner. And like variant species on a lost island, these modes of female music shared the jungle’s resources in harmony.

Congruently, Queer Noise Solidarity embodies the binary of these drum styles, simply by casting players informed by one or both styles. And it works because the drum movements that Wednesday designed have a universality to them. The act of the “drum band” as a whole is greater than its sum of the parts as the participants are bashing together in a matching (maybe even marching) goal towards a utopic collectivity.

QNS takes what would be a choir of female voices and replaces it with a society of drums, united in sync, powerful in anger and joy. Drumming for drumming sake (sans guitar, bass, and vocals) eradicates all that is expected in a rock n’roll artifice. There is no plot needed to this play, as the play is about pure presence. This gesture is as far away from commercialism and capitalism as can possibly be, monumental and exhilarating. We embrace this spirited confluence of live drums where the natural elements go hand in hand with the art, showing us a new manner of “religious” congregating. As player to player and from player to audience, we commemorate humanity’s compassion in concert with sound and nature. 

Lupypciw arranges the three movements structured inside a formal sound-based plan. The plan enables her drummers to play their interpretation of the assigned structure, as long as they keep on the same accent and in unison. And like a concert bowl, The Pit does a fine job containing a “wall of sound” that imbues a widened and orchestral sensorial feeling. Do you recall the aforementioned, great and troubled people-hater, 60’s pop producer Phil Spector? He made sonic history by applying instrumental multiplicity in a most bombastic way. His reverberated beats, layered atop one another, made us aware there could be theatre for our ears. Imagine hearing glimmering sheets of steel creating a textural depth to the frequencies. At the time, this mono-based orchestral pop competed with the grandeur one could have from listening to Herbert Von Karajan or St. Martin in the Fields. Spector’s style changed the complexion of popular music as an unforeseen black swan of sophistication and glory. He elevated his singing protégés from their mean streets into teen idols bellowing heartbreak from an echoing Mount Olympus. This ear theatre was like a fractal of nature, where the use of multiplicity and unison-playing techniques were the main ingredient for building a “populated” resonance reflecting the populated world it was made for. Spector’s other goal was for this orchestral fantasia to conjure a sex magic inciting the heterosexist sale of seduction, or the promise thereof, especially for nerds, not unlike the self-proclaimed misogynist-impresario himself.

Contrariwise, Lupypciw’s mission in creating live sonic multiplicity deals a different deck of romance, where a sonic queer village of all-sorts create a homebrew of sound that is locally harvested, and solely for self-consumption: uncomplicated, unconventional and un-commercial. One drummer likened the Queer Noise Solidarity experience to a big ship on big water trying not to capsize, where drummers drummed non-stop like their lives depended on it. 

This living sculpture creates a celebratory reminder, an heirloom to the past, present, and future. The Take Back The Night homage, ALL! NIGHT! LONG!, was a closing show-stopping chant that came off like an ancient spell, perhaps to keep the bad-isms at bay. This last act gave this event a successful conclusion, which is rare in critical agit prop performance art. And lest we forget all of the many inspiring women fighting back (whether it be Pussy Riot or The Gulabi Gang, a group of pink sari wearing vigilantes who pressure men to stop abusing their wives or face the bamboo stick themselves).

Lupypciw’s performance unabashedly offers up a heightened incantation of third wave feminism, contributing to a queer sentiment in staying united and inspired. It would be exciting to imagine QNS traveling from city to city, each time with a new drummers’ battalion. This is where collective drumming can enliven dangerous arenas into the safe public places they are intended to be. 

I never liked the park after the mugging. Remembering the incident and all the horrible feelings that came from it. Park felt cursed to me. 

Drumming in the Park: Felt vindicated, powerful, maybe even euphoric.

I think the 3rd movement was my favorite. We used mostly tom and kick drums with crashing cymbals. There was a continuous build up and then come down but the loudest parts were my favorite—felt like an exorcism. Felt safe and supported as a large group of women and queers—just felt free. Playing drums is freedom to me and to do it in a space I never imagined hanging out in again—I was unleashed…reawakened… the project being a huge reminder for a loner like me that sisterhood is powerful. 

—Wednesday Lupypciw

Caroline Azar is a Canadian Playwright-Dramaturge/Director and Teacher. She instructs Actors and Writers using a self-designed method called “The Archival” in order to complete performance work that is rigorous, relevant and frightening for stage and film. Azar is teaming up with Trinity Square Video presenting an intensive for artists in the fall of 2013. From 1981 to 1994, Azar was the lyricist-lead singer and organist with the 80’s Toronto female experimental punk group Fifth Column. The group is best known for the song All Women Are Bitches, Repeat!. Despite the controversy surrounding the song, it was reviewed by Everett True and named Single of the Week in the UK music magazine Melody Maker. She has teamed up again with founding Fifth Column member GB Jones in creating interactive art and Theatre projects for the public like The Bruised Garden for Nuit Blanche 2012 and the She Said Boom Feminist Zine Making Symposium. Azar also volunteers for Girls’ Rock Camp Toronto. Azar has a play in development called DINK, which will be published in a National Anthology collection in 2014.


The Event

The top floor of a defunct transformer factory at 213 Sterling Avenue in Toronto is the site of a recent event curated by claude wittmann and initiated by Shannon Cochrane of FADO Performance Art Centre. Following claude’s premise, the task of the three performers—Jo SiMalaya Alcampo, Simon Rabyniuk, and Yumi Onose—is to set something in motion on January 14th and then respond to it on January 15th. This event goes beyond simple responses to become a continuous bodily transformation spanning 26 hours and sweeping up performers, audiences, spaces, sounds and materials into its corporeality.

The Garden

Jo SiMalaya Alcampo, a powerful calming force, welcomes us. She sits on a carpet amongst plants arranged in a semi-circle. The audience is drawn closer to form another semi-circle: plants and audience now embrace Jo. Our Experience is transformed by the way we engage with each other. Jo tells us she grew up in her Lola’s (Grandmother’s) garden beneath the banana leaves, protected from the hot sun of the Philippines. As she speaks, a red spotlight lingers on the varnished wooden floor like a sunset…we are in a garden; Jo’s words and gestures transform our surroundings. Have we been here before? What we cannot remember is how the plants sing! They sing!

The Market

Next we hear a story about Jo visiting a sari-sari market with her Lola. A place where you can buy only 1 of each thing. Her Lola points with her lips to objects she wants to buy. Jo purses her lips. Stories are the most valuable currency.

The Mint

Surveying the garden around her, Jo’s hand follows a line ending under a plant from where she pulls out a golden bottle cap! She smells it. She holds it towards the light, letting it linger a moment as a sedentary sun. Then Jo pushes the cap into a broad leaf, forcefully cutting it to make coins: Philippine pesos. I could feel the bottle cap against my fingers as I pressed it against the plant and could hear the crunching sound. Although it is sensual, making pesos creates wounds. To become the market, the garden first becomes the mint, and the plants become raw materials for the production of pesos. Gaps, holes, soul-wounds, physical shadows, clean geometric holes are what remain in the plants. On coins we read the presence of the state, we are supposed to feel unified; here the coins dismember. We must forget some things in order to live. A tragic yet beautiful silence descends. These wounds are the remnants of Jo’s dreams in the garden. What follows is punishment and isolation.

The Song

A story-teller is more a crowd than an individual. Jo’s hands linger near the growing leaves around her. These plants have parts that are missing—yet they sing! Conductive thread is infused into the plants’ bodies and connects to an electronic grid allowing each plant to speak, to tell a part of the story. When our bodies come close to these plants one of them makes isolated bells sounds; another, melodic instrumental sounds; the next, long mournful chanting sounds; and the last, is Jo’s own voice speaking. The sounds resemble and connect to traditional Philippine music. All the plants sing but the songs are full of sudden ruptures, breaks in connectivity, repetitions and re-starts like music skipping over wounds.


This hole is ripped not only into the plant but into our own bodies too. Jo presses the green pesos to her wrists and neck and slowly bandages them with rolls of cloth. These white rolls orbit around her body’s wounds in attempts at recollection, orbiting around an unknowable and ungraspable centre. A body is made of distinct parts—to re-member is to reconstitute a complete body, but this does not work. Ours is already a living historical body in which forces from various times and places play out, creating tensions here, exhilarations there; a body that is a field of action for a memory that is always current; a body that makes physical and present the dreams of the past. Traumatic events are embedded in our bones…Our cells resonate with our ancestors’ acts of resistance. 


Yumi Onose, forgetting gravity, flies into the space. With a red sheet spread like wings she circles around the space, over snow-capped mountains that are, in actuality, stacked rolls of toilet paper. Reveling in the vastness of the space, she creates an enormous terrain, and the very act of moving through it is the act of making it. As she flies the performance setting becomes an ephemeral, open landscape–a space which is unlimited, or at least without measurable limits.

Yumi Onose, 2011. Photo credit: Henry Chan


In a performative turn of dream-logic, Yumi’s cloak becomes a bed on which she, finally, collapses. As if waking from an uproarious dream—Yumi begins to laugh. She laughs, we laugh, she laughs harder, we laugh harder we laugh! That dream was hilarious! What happened? No one knows. The dream’s content is replaced by an intense feedback loop.

The Atmosphere

For a moment the space rolls over and stands up in a posture of uncontrollable joy!  Suddenly, the laughter turns to equally strong bawling. With poise, Yumi walks on a tight-rope between an abyss of absurdity on one side and dark profundity on the other. The real movement, however, happens in the audience’s reaction which creates a constantly oscillating atmosphere. We are a community, a unified reactive body. Our collective reactions spread like a sandstorm through the space, hitting each others’ bodies and creating a shifting ground on which Yumi’s gestures are apprehended.


Yumi recapitulates her own flight with rolls of toilet paper she tosses across the space. With these traces—long white lines—toilet paper is both cartographic and meteorological. It is a map that carves up the ground, creating linear wounds, physical shadows. It is a weather phenomenon that tangles, intersects, speeds up, slows down, forms indeterminate cloud lines. The new tight-rope is the horizon between fields and skies. Territory Yumi. Snowstorm Yumi.


What follows is silence. Ceremoniously Yumi holds a bell to the light, letting it linger.  Suddenly, she strikes the singing bowl: circles of sound dissolve in the space. Our cells resonate. Quickly, Yumi distributes rolls of toilet paper to the audience. Saying much without words, Yumi points at us both lyrically and aggressively with her mallet. Without hesitation, those with rolls of paper come forward. Activated: we fling the rolls across the space becoming so many vectors, each with its own speed, direction and personality. These lines become many things: our intentions, bodily contours, drifting thoughts, etched habits, postures…Lines leave our bodies, go out into the world and mingle with others’ lines, forming new ones together. 


Eventually, the lines of paper wind around all of us. Yumi, the great silent orchestrator, encourages us to flap our newly discovered wings. Previously we were isolated points looking and thinking inwards—now we are a continuous flowing line moving outwards.

Voluntary Prisoners

Suddenly the atmosphere changes and we realize we have become inmates. Up to a certain threshold we were enhanced by the rolls of paper. We were animated, united, communicating movements: our bodies could do more. Now some of us are tied to steel poles. The tight-rope quivers. claude surveys a room of bandaged bodies. Our wrists and necks have soul-wounds. The bell rings.

The Cemetery

Simon Rabyniuk kneels amongst piles of clothes. We are transported to his room, which feels all the more empty by our presence there. He lays out a black duffel bag upon which he ceremoniously draws a cross using graphite. Who is he drawing for? Setting in motion the ritual of a traveler, he begins to fill the large bag with his clothes. The space becomes increasingly empty. Gradually, the bag takes on substance and weight until it finally stands up!  Simon stands, lingering over the bag, and kicks it with the inside of his leg. Then once again: the other leg. Thud…thud. The bag awakens to correct its posture. We become serious and something in us says: Someone lies buried here. 

Simon Rabyniuk, 2011. Photo credit: Henry Chan

The Walk

Tomorrow I will walk from 8am to 8pm…I will probably fail…I will hold my place of brightness open to the gaze of others. With his back to us Simon sits, assuming the posture of the monolith he has just filled with clothes. The monolith just sits there, staring at us, making solemn fun. Simon is looking at the blank wall with his shoulders rhythmically swaying. He is in a trance, walking while staying still, with his mind entering the vast snowy landscape that is the white wall. For a moment he is gone.


Next we witness disoriented experiments in walking. While lying on his back, Simon’s feet are kicking, generating enough inertia to shift his whole body across the ground. He walks while laying down…he walks towards the ground…he walks on the wall…he walks: anticipating all possible positions his body will take tomorrow. The earth has already rotated and he is catching up. Simon leaves a horizon of footprints on the wall. We don’t yet know what a walk can be, how it can destabilize the ground we take for granted. What else is dancing but forgetting how to walk?

Old Man

Simon’s walking experiments have lasted a long time, maybe decades; we have witnessed a whole life through various configurations of walking. We are invited to consider walking as a state of mind…walking as thinking…walking as so many forms of encounter with others…walking as moving through life…walking. Simon finally limps away, he leaves through the door, he is gone. We can barely hear his steps on the metal stairs. Some of us run to the window. After a moment Simon appears! He is outside walking. There is applause as he turns the corner and disappears. Someone says: I don’t think he’s going to make it.


I dreamt I was running while singing a song about home. I kept coming back to the refrain, to come home.The road was steep and sandy but I was fast. The event is stretched over the night and day. We process, we eat, sleep, dream, think. Look, there is Simon walking! We imagine when glancing out the window while getting dressed in the morning. Will he look us in the eyes when he comes back tomorrow and maybe say nothing? Yumi is laughing today! We feel when we hear wind chimes mid-day. Jo is watering her plants! We know while cleaning and shining our dishes after supper. How close will she come to her wounds? We feel more…But where is the stage? What is being orchestrated? Who will clap? The curtain does not fall.


We all come back the next day and wait. On the first night we were boisterous but tonight a solemn and anxious air hangs in the space. We have been anticipating a performance that has been in progress all day, absent from our view. claude burns sage and the smoke rises up the steel columns. Tonight, he also distributes smoke by the windows. We remember the outside. It is dark and cold. We wait.


From a distance a figure approaches the building—Simon! The door to the studio opens and Simon walks in. He hasn’t really been gone since we’ve been thinking of him. But he hasn’t really come back either since he seems incredibly distant at first, not accepting the hero’s welcome, doing laps around the space which are more mechanical than victorious. Walking in a daze except when he passes the audience: Simon then makes close eye-contact and can’t conceal a smile.


Tonight, Simon is no longer the same. He walks into the space holding his shoes in his hands, carefully setting them down on the floor as an offering. Simon’s shoes recall those painted by Van Gogh: portraits that reveal how far one has walked and where one has been. Taking off his socks, Simon continues his laps around the space. His feet represent nothing.  They enact. Scratched, blistered, white from the cold they are a double record of the day-long performance. This twin-portrait of Simon rhythmically moves across the floor.  Thud…thud.

The City

To walk in a snowstorm was beautiful. Simon opens all the windows. Walking in a large loop around the space he occasionally stops and leaves a heavy bundle of clothes, shaken out of the duffle bag from yesterday. As the clothes land on the ground they construct a giant map of his walk. He tells us a story of what happened at every bundle of clothes. I started here this morning. Simon moves to the next bundle, recapitulating his walk, I stopped at the Calbrese Bakery, I felt too heavy, so I stopped. The remnants of Simon, his clothes, are distributed around the space because his body and compassion have been distributed throughout the city. The city itself, as understood during his walk, is the site and material for the construction of Simon’s self.  We are inhabiting a physical model of a city, a person, a series of interactions. This city is in the process of construction and we inflect it at every moment, building an Event Urbanism.


Time has passed; Jo’s plants have grown a little. They have taken on new names and virtues: claude, trust; Yumi, Joy; Simon, Brightness. The performers and curator now inhabit Jo’s plants and make the fitting sounds. We learn that over time these plants alter their code, the sensors expand so the entire plant can sing. The performers, too, have infused their entire bodies with a sensitivity to the audience and to the various materials distributed around the space. Jo has altered her code, incorporating Simon and Yumi’s gestures. Thoughts and bodies melting, the plants sing the claude-Simon-Jo-Yumi song!


Instead of rolls of bandages today there is a large white cloth hanging to Jo’s right. On it there is a faint, haunting, drawing of Jo as a young girl. It seems to say: Let’s remember our past selves, are they still with us? Is it good to become them now and again? Jo’s mouth is moving. What comes out is not a story but green pesos that have been joined together to form a necklace. Jo adorns her drawing with the necklace—the young Jo is thrilled! The banana leaf turned first into pesos then a necklace; that has been bandaged, then ingested; is now worn, embracing Jo. 


Jo tells us a story of plants healing themselves: an orange-brown lattice develops around the wound: a tough scar to protect itself…We came to Canada to forget. It is too painful to remember. What does healing mean for bodies that are composed of so many past selves?—Bodies that are composed of the environment, unthinkable without their connections to living materials, hidden languages, customs and forms of life? All these elements infuse the fibers of our bodies. Sometimes they are silenced, sometimes they sing. Throughout this performance we attempt to listen.


Today does not simply respond to yesterday, it acts on and transforms yesterday: building a two-way bridge. Yumi intervenes in Simon’s map of the city. She tries on a shirt, as if trying on Simon’s experience. Yumi’s hand follows a line and from under a pile of sweaters she pulls out a golden ball of socks—and throws them! In this ruinous playground, the displacement of clothes disrupts the sequence of events. Yumi transports an event from one part of Simon’s walk to another, moving it through time and space.


Amongst the psycho-sartorial rubble Yumi finds and puts on a pair of swimming goggles!  She slowly, beautifully, moves down the central aisle in the space, hands pushing through the dense atmosphere. Simon’s city is underwater! Jo’s garden is underwater! We have been flooded; we try to speak but only produce a necklace of bubbles.


Throw your shoulders back. Yumi tries on Simon’s white running shorts. Push your pelvis forward. The watery atmosphere has transformed into a fashion show. Weight on ball of foot. Yumi walks confidently down a newly created runway. Put one foot in front of the other. On a tightrope, between a control-freak and trickster, she walks. Point hips, shoulders, and feet to the side and look straight on at the audience over your shoulder. She smirks. Capture the essence of the clothes you are wearing with the expression on your face. As Yumi starts walking away, Jo’s plants respond! These new performers are a frustrating surprise to Yumi but hilarious to the audience. Make head and shoulders sturdy like a coat-hanger. Yumi comes closer and attempts to orchestrate the plants in order to regain control, but they stop. With her arms demanding a response, Yumi becomes increasingly authoritarian the more contingency opens up. She can do no more. Defeated, Yumi walks away but after several steps the plants rebelliously activate again! There is no silencing this uprising—she starts to dance. Hips swaying. Her fervor reaches a certain pitch and the plants stop. 


The ceremony from last night is repeated but more methodically. Toilet paper is distributed amongst the audience. We toss our lines, as long as possible, into the space. A lesson in fervor: most of us use too much force—the paper breaks! Yumi looks at us, mockingly disappointed. Suddenly, there is a break with tradition: Jo’s plants activate again, someone throws a roll of paper over a steel beam. Eventually all is a frenzy of white paper. It is beautiful to walk in a snowstorm. The plants act as a gauge of energy. There is a general carnival atmosphere with everyone running around with toilet paper, some spinning it, some wrapping it around each other, some fluttering it, some making architecture out of it, some using it as a weapon, some making clothes, ripping it, stuffing it under their shirts, unrolling it, rolling it up again. There are no longer individual selves to speak of but an atmospheric community—partly frenzied partly invigorated, partly dangerous—colliding with each other then moving on; all flowing in relation to each other, all aware, full of joy, abandoned to the space. We are simultaneously in a garden, a city, in the air, recreating the space with our bodies in a way no other material can.


At the end, this entirely distributed and free composition of bodies centers in again on Yumi and the audience begins to cover her with the paper in large clumps: building a statue, a monument to certainty. Eventually all that is visible is a large mound of paper with swimming goggles peeking through. Yumi is still holding a bell. She strikes the singing bowl, redoubling the flood of paper. Someone places a roll of paper on her mallet, she tries again to ring the bell but this time we hear a dull thud. She disappears under the white paper…stillness…silence.


I dream that we can dance with weather, it moves at our speed. Wind moves as fast as we can run, the night passes the length of time we need to rest, a cloud moves as fast as we need to imagine; it moves at our speed. Among chaos, among stories, clouds, buildings, gardens, markets, birds, horizons, infants, feet…among debris in this ruinous playground, among the clamor, murmuring and frenzy of bodies we hear Yume No Ato—The remnants of dreams.

Marcin Kedzior is a dancer, musician, architectural designer, writer and professor living in Toronto. Kedzior is on the editorial board of the journal Scapegoat: Architecture, Landscape and Political Economy, which confronts the coercive and violent organization of spaces, bodies and resources. He is interested in the city as an agglomeration of bodies and realities in which certain spaces produce bodies as commodities, useful tools, mere statistics, elements to be kept in line and entities that can be known. Kedzior understands movement practices as experiments in constructing unthinkable spaces and realities, affirming alternate forms of action and existence. 

Reflection on M. Gros [Mr. Big] by Geneviève et Matthieu

© Geneviève et Matthieu, M. Gros [Mr. Big], FADO Performance Art Centre, 2022. Photo Henry Chan.

Geneviève and Matthieu bring me into their studio. They take my coat and hang it up. Monsieur Gros and Monsieur Gros are in the checkroom with a coat hanger, a cotton candy machine and a rope-knife. There is no shortage of evidence, in fact, that’s all there is; everywhere, evidence that an artist’s life is violent.

Crime often comes from within. Geneviève speaks over Matthieu, then he reproaches her for expressing herself poorly. They lay themselves bare. They love each other, and above all, they say the same thing. Two big babies, one united family. M. Gros is a story of appetite, of thirst, of excess, but it is also the story of a duo of artists who emancipate themselves. The large painting, they knocked it down because it oppressed them so much.

Since I have known them, I feel like taking everything from them. Sometimes, alone at home, I imitate Geneviève’s eloquence, I invoke Matthieu’s quiet strength. They are so big.

While they are discussing wiretapping, I record them. Geneviève confides to me that she dreams of writing an investigative script, but that she is unable to do so. Immediately, I say to myself: I will write one for them. I infiltrate their workshop, I will be inspired by their characters, I will slip into their skin. Then they say, “We’ll find the copycat artist, and if we have to, we’ll look for him among the members.” They set me up. That’s the beginning of Operation Mister Big.

This is a Queer Series

Welcome to the fall 2019 iteration of Performance Club where three queer artists take you into the heart of their processes, practices, and deepest fears. Through performance gatherings, readings, discussions and one workshop, these experimental forays into a hybrid form—somewhere between the academy and the studio—seek to provide an opportunity for you to contribute to, reflect on, and shine in the light of three innovative interventions into performance and being. 

In order to enhance the experiential proceedings that define Performance Club, we provide you, here, with this syllabus and course pack (even though this is technically not a course). All will become clear soon enough. 

Club Objectives

This Performance Club will increase your ability to:

  • Compare and contrast various styles of performance
  • Discuss art with strangers
  • Critically engage with original live performance
  • Formalize the space between performance and learning
  • Enhance your conceptual understanding of performance
  • Enhance your conceptual understanding of clubs
  • Gain a deeper understanding of process and its centrality to performance
  • Develop confidence in your ability to communicate in a club setting
  • Understand the ways that performance is in conversation with the social and political forces that surround it
  • Laugh and then cry 
  • Retreat and then rejoin
  • Eat snacks and then eat more snacks
  • Embrace your inner queer

Required Reading: A Script, A Story, A Score

These Performance Club events are self-referential insomuch as each refers back to a previous performance, gestures toward a future performance, or imagines a related performance. 

Research, creative engagement and hands-on learning intersect in this multi-pronged approach to develop spectatorship that is aesthetically, socially, and formally engaged. As clubs, these events necessarily rely on collective meaning-making and shared interest in specific topics. Assembled here, in one handy volume, are all the printed materials required for your fully informed club experience. 

Take this syllabus home with you. Read it, review it, and come prepared to discuss its contents in an open and friendly environment. Extra points will not be given for talking at length. 

Club Structure

Attend Performance: September 10
Performance Club begins in week one with Book Club: snowflakes in the echo chamber by Moe Angelos. Moe’s performance contemplation of fragility, fear, and the flattening of knowledge in contemporary society is performed as a “sort of” sequel to her previous Performance Club contribution, entitled Queer/Play, which you will find published in this volume. Moe wants you to know that: “When you arrive, you should be aware that performance will take place and you may be a performer and/or in the audience. And there will be snacks.” 

Readings: September 6–11
Participants must read this introduction, plus the entry by Moe Angelos entitled Queer/Play, as well as the entry by Cornell Woolrich entitled Three O’Clock in preparation for the coming week’s club performance. 

Attend Performance: September 12
In week two Hope Thompson performs a conjectural interaction with the ghost of Cornell Woolrich to dissect the trans-historical connection between queerness and mystery. This conjuring is inspired by Hope’s work-in-progress play inspired Woolrich’s Three O’Clock, which is included in this volume. Hope hopes you know that: “You will be watching an interview with a deceased writer. I don’t expect you, necessarily, to know much about the writer.” 

Reading: September 13–18
Participants must read the entry by David Bateman entitled I Wanted To Be Bisexual But My Father Wouldn’t Let Me in preparation for the following week’s club performance. 

Workshop: September 14
Attend Death, Sex, & Macrame where there will be some macramé weaving. The workshop is not mandatory, but it is compulsory. 

Attend Performance: September 19
For the third and final performance of this series, David Bateman, who wants you to know that he is “trying to configure new and current work as aspects of 35 years of creating performance, and the influences that continue to affect [his] ongoing performance work,” will delve into the ambiguities of gender and performativity to either enrich or confuse your previous views, depending on his current state of gender/mind. 


Each event happens only once, and while the events are connected they are not the same—interlinked, but unique. Participants are strongly encouraged to attend all Performance Club events related to the materials in this syllabus. Extra points will be given for initiating discussions that draw on material covered across the entire series. 


The grading scheme for participants will be fully self-regulated. If, however, you prefer to be graded by an experienced professional, please feel free to approach me at the final event. But, be advised, once you have been graded by me that grade will be considered final. 

This Is Not A Course, Nor A Show

How do we define the spaces between learning and viewing, between art and politics, between being and performing? These clubs seek to extend the reach of performance to find new forms with which to answer these questions and to pose many more questions along the way. The club format, likened to the traditional salon, can be seen as a default space of education, or as an open forum for creative expression. The club is always about engagement and in this club we hope you will find yourself engaged and embraced in a series of performances that are not just for show.

Curatorial notes from the 2003 Trans <---> Tech festival catalogue

Irma Optimist and Pekka Luhta curated by Paul Couillard

For this installment of FADO’s ongoing International Visiting Artists series, we feature solo performances by two Finnish artists who incorporate digital media in the form of video projection.

Video has been a staple component of performance art since the technology became accessible to artists with the development of the Portapac in the 1970s. The refinement of projection technologies and the widespread availability and affordability of video recorders has accelerated the dialogue between these two time-based disciplines. What was once a complex and technically challenging relationship has rapidly become relatively commonplace, and the ability to accommodate basic video projection is now standard for most performance art producers.

Video’s strength is its ability to conjure up images that are not readily at hand: recording what has passed, moving through faraway spaces, or manifesting images that are beyond the everyday laws of physics and logic. By contrast, performance art’s strength is that it offers the opportunity for performer and audience to breathe the same air. In performance, the artist can respond spontaneously to the exigencies of the moment.

Contemporary artists have employed a wide range of strategies and have a variety of reasons for combining these two distinct forms. In the case of Irma Optimist and Pekka Luhta, two artists whose works inevitably rely on interactivity and improvisation as key artistic tactics, video projections become the fixed supporting player in an unpredictable larger action. The projections serve as an emblem to reinforce the underlying intentions that compelled the performer to engineer this unstable moment of communion with his or her audience.

While the two artists have distinct and highly individualized practices, they deploy a similar strategy that provides a coherence for their pairing in this series. Both present performance works that stage an intersection of the deconstructive impulses of intellectual or emotional energy (theory in process) with the reconstructive impulses of the material or physical reality of their bodies (theory in practice). They are fearless in their willingness to mine the charms and foibles of their bodies to provide metaphors that demonstrate, disseminate and at the same time problematize theoretical concepts.

For Irma Optimist, who leads a double life as a respected professor of advanced mathematics, female sexuality is the tactic of choice in her performance art works. Using various personas, from sex kitten to the mythical huntress Diana, she seduces, captivates and captures males within her audience in order to explain mathematical formulae. For Pekka Luhta, a prosthetic limb provides the departure point for setting up complex readings of cultural and social theory. Both present works that hint at a slightly surrealist sensibility, employing rapid-fire humour and high-impact visual imagery. A sense of fun generated in the moment where artist and audience come together cushions the later, deeper impact of serious thought that remains.

Francesco Gagliardi on Tanya Mars’ GOOD BUY!

Image © FADO, 2018. Photo Henry Chan.

Good evening,

My name is Francesco Gagliardi and on behalf of FADO I am delighted to welcome you to the opening of GOOD BUY! by Tanya Mars.

Saying that the person you’re about to introduce needs no introduction is usually a cliché, but on this occasion it’s just a statement of fact. If you’re here tonight you know Tanya, and if you know her you love her – or at least you want some of her stuff.

So instead of talking about Tanya I will talk about myself, and I will tell you about the first time I sat eyes on Tanya Mars. It was about ten years ago – at the Lower Ossington Theatre: just a few doors north of her old apartment, which many of you will remember. Seiji Shimoda was performing his then already famous table piece, in which he cavorted on and around a table for about an hour wearing no clothes. The piece was originally performed using a custom-built table, but by the time I saw it, it involved the use of what Seiji referred to as “indigenous” tables: tables found on site and somehow connected to the ecosystem of specific performance communities. At the end of the evening, Shannon Cochrane – then, as tonight, the wizard behind the curtain – thanked Ms. Mars for lending the table. She waved off the acknowledgement rather brusquely, shaking her head in a way that was soon to become familiar to me: a sort of modified hair flip, the last phase of an elaborate sequence of actions starting with her glasses repeatedly traveling up and down between the bridge of her nose and the crown of her head, and invariably getting entangled in her platinum blond hair. It was 2008 and she had just been awarded the Governor General’s Award in Visual Arts. I found her rather formidable.

In retrospect, it makes perfect sense that it was Tanya who lent the table, and not just because she lived next door: she sat (at her table) at the very centre of the city’s performance ecosystem. As I came to learn, if you needed something, chances were that Tanya had it. And, if she had it, she would lend it to you no question asked. A rotary telephone or a rotating tray, a yard of pink fabric or a pair of riding spurs, faux fur, real fur, fake eyelashes, thigh-high fishing boots or tap shoes, a thurible, a button in the shape of a gondola or a gondola made of buttons, two identical cocktail hats or five boxes of plastic bobblehead dogs.

Over the years, this extraordinary collection has grown while traveling from Montreal to Toronto to Shelburne Nova Scotia, and back to Toronto – aboard moving vans and cars, up and down elevators and flights of stairs, in and out of storages rooms, attics, and unfinished basements – in labelled and unlabelled boxes and plastic bags, or rattling inside containers that were themselves part of the collection: hatboxes, slide projector cases, 1950s Bakelite handbags hand-made by nuns behind the Iron Curtain. Over the years, out of this accumulation, Ms. Mars has built her performance worlds: the costumes, the sets, the props – her tools and weapons. You might recognize a clear-plastic umbrella from The Pursuit of Happiness, a toy baby grand piano from Tyranny of Bliss, silver shoes that have glimmered in several pieces since the 1960s.

But building worlds requires discipline and discrimination. Four buttons may not be enough, but six is one too many. The shape of the vase may be right, but if the weight is not, you can’t use it. Mixed in with the performance relics, still radiating the afterglow of their brief tenure as art objects, a lot of what fills the room next door is just stuff that has never been used. Not exactly refuse, but material waiting to be called to life – a sort of counter-image of Tanya’s world: the feathers that didn’t make it onto the hat, the five gorilla dolls discarded at the last moment, the gloves that would have been perfect if only they had been a brighter yellow. This shadowy double (the dark side of Mars, if you will) is not only revealing of an artist’s discernment and taste, but full of potential waiting to be activated. It was chosen and collected with care, it almost came to life and didn’t – but it still could. It lies dormant, waiting to be awakened from the uncertain repose of objecthood.

Like in every fairy tale awakening, it is always the sleeping princess, really, who awakens the prince. So listen to the murmur of the feathers, feel the golden fabric, let those turquoise slippers entice you: they might bring you places you didn’t even know existed.

Wake up, make sure you have the exact change, and GOOD BUY!

Performance Club 2: Commencement Keynote Address

Thank you, it’s such a pleasure to be here tonight to help celebrate your recent success. Special thanks to Dr. Keith Cole – I’ve been a long-time fan of your work – and to the incredible Dean of the Faculty of Performance Art, Dr. Shannon Cochrane.

Tonight’s ceremony is a way to recognize the time commitment and efforts made by the graduates. We mark this occasion because we value these things: reading books, drinking wine, meeting in person to talk about books, and drinking more wine. Also, we celebrate the lost art of listening, which is more than half of what it means to communicate, is the secret to building relationship and community, and which seems to be the biggest casualty in today’s social media wars. 

You’ve worked hard. With busy lives, it’s challenging to commit to a month of Tuesdays – to reading a very thick book, completing homework assignments, and showing up every week. It’s a very different impulse to share physical space with strangers on a king size bed in a motel room on Spadina Avenue, than it is to scroll comments online, liking stuff. Graduates, you chose to engage in meaningful dialogue in the flesh. It’s remarkable, given today’s technological advantages. In other parts of your lives, some of you teach. Some are students. But in this setting we follow a different social contract: this is knowledge exchange and we are all participating and learning. Some of you organized this project and others came strictly as guests – but we all performed roles. This is really exciting.

Specifically we honour a book written more than fifty years ago by Jacqueline Susann: a bestseller, blockbuster, and inspiration for the film we will be watching in a few moments: the Valley of the Dolls. Is it a work of art in the great literary tradition? Absolutely not. But it is more than mere commodity. You were asked: what does this book mean to us now? Is it still relevant? 

For me to answer that, I need to take a step back in time. Please indulge me!

I was born and raised in a one-stoplight town at the Southern most tip of Canada. 

We have tornados, organized crime, every Fundamentalist Christian movement imaginable, and quick sand. I barely made it out alive! Raise your hand if you’re from a small town. Shout it out! Okay suburbs, too, a different kind of soul death. 

We have this in common: aspiration, desperation, desire. We abandoned local expectation to enter into a magical place – urban, fictional, where we could become someone completely new. Or completely Gay. Just like us, the main characters come from shitty little towns to The Big City. So far, how is this different from our own stories? Even Lyon, the fictional British stud, is actually from an isolated farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, England. 

We create Self and community. We continue to create, and then comes secondary wants: money, love, fame. Sometimes, we recreate a status quo: hard rules based on competition, insecurity, internalized bigotry, capitalist greed. Because somewhere along the line we try to make art for a buck in this Vampire Economy. In the Valley of the Dolls they get rich. The rest of us just get notorious. (if we’re lucky!)

Knowing this book celebrates high camp, I thought it would be fun to read. 

The first half is the ingénue’s journey. Those female friendships reminded me of my own early years: surviving on stolen saltines, scissoring with a series of gorgeous roommates, and angling for free drinks at the bar. In the book there was a transition. The second half, that’s when things got rough. Saturn Return, People! By the end of the book, I felt a great despair.

I suspect reading this book as a woman is quite different than reading it as not a woman. Men make the rules and men benefit from them. Men also sacrifice a domestic or sustainable romantic life in order to play the game, but they don’t pay the ultimate price. What about Tony, you say? Privately perceived to be a damaged man, less of a man than others, he’s used much like a woman in this book. He’s a child man, almost equal to a woman. But his manager/sister never betrays him; he wins privacy and dignity, which is robbed from all of the females without exception.

The currency for most transactions in the book is female bodies. Oh there’s money money money. But women’s bodies, and ultimately their minds, are the collateral damage for fame and fortune. Or, for a simple escape from insufferable small town life. 

Each beautiful woman in this book is a stand in for all those other beautiful women. They’re on billboards, magazines, movie screens, television. We read Jennifer North and think Marilyn. Sharon, Whitney. Anna Nicole. Reading Neely we think Judy Garland. Frances Farmer. Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, Rose McGowan. Anne Welles could be Princess Di, living a lie, wealthy and famous and starved for affection. Hungry. And if this is the outcome for the most culturally valued, famous, wealthy and privileged white women, what about the rest of us? 

Professor Cole mentioned how Jennifer North’s death scene haunted him for years. For me the passages describing Neely’s incarceration in the sanatorium were terrifying. How many dissatisfied wives or reluctant girls or lesbians or latent witches or Indigenous or free thinking females were incarcerated just so, because they would not or could not play the limited roles allotted to them in their particular time? How many are still there now?

Is this book relevant? I don’t know what you decided in class, but I will say, sadly, yes. Because we can’t go one day without another famous entertainer stepping forward to talk about sexual misconduct or violence she endured during attempts to get work, maintain contracts, and grow a career.

Hell, never mind Hollywood. You might be amazed to learn as I did, that behind each little poem in practically any college literary magazine lies a blow job. A dusty, alcohol induced, sloppy, end of the night blow job. You can hardly break into the regional and non-glamorous world of Canadian literature without banging some old drunk. And for what? A royalty cheque that barely covers a month’s rent in any major city.  Never mind the cost of the prescription you’ll need to clear up the STI that poet gave you! Is there no end to the sense of entitlement held by these bearded unwashed creeps? What exactly fuels their narcissism and desperation for artistic recognition? And more important, Who Cares!?

While in the asylum and afterward, Neely speaks about her changed body with the assumption that gaining weight is a death sentence for pleasure and affection. Lyon’s hateful words about her size are fuelled with a violence and disgust that leap from the page – from a page already soaked in violence and disgust! And isn’t he the first guy on top of her, as soon as she starts popping those diet pills again? Creep.   

Even the richest woman in New York, in the world, goes to bed hungry at night, afraid of expanding her waistline.

So, what has changed in the past 50 years? 

In many respects, not much. The demise of the women in this book is all too real.

Have we at least evolved with regards to this deep body shaming, this dismissal of unconventional female beauty and power? Can we – queers, activists, artists, witches, people of size, black, indigenous, trans and disabled people – can we break this mold once and for all?

YES Mother Fucker.

My kindest advice to the graduates:

Self medicate. Like the precious white women in this book. Pop your pills and dull your pain, buffer yourself from the injustice surrounding you.

OR wake up, and dismantle it, piece by piece.

Write your own scripts, your own plays and musicals. Start your own band, make your own film. Write your damn poetry and print it or publish it yourselves. Use your cell phones, for God’s sake, and maybe, if we stop taking selfies, stop skimming and scrolling and liking things long enough, we can even use them to take down the government! 

Where will be fifty years from now? Who’s to say. But hopefully by then we can finally talk about the real main characters, the Dolls themselves. Pills for diets, pills for beauty sleep. Pills for heartache and physical pain and depression and grief, for the deep emotional wounds that will not heal. The benzos of 1960’s Hollywood may as well be the Oxys, Percs and Fentynal of the current western world. The dolls are everywhere. The Tabloid story that remains untold is the one about the wealthy, mostly-white men who make the dolls, who market and prescribe the dolls, and get even richer from the dolls. They are the ones whose reckoning shall one day come. 

My final words to you, courageous graduates: (Donna Martin Graduates!)

Every Cock Counts. (Chanting with everyone!)

If you’re going to suck it, suck it good. But never forget what else you’ve got in that mouth: teeth. A toast to one day biting down!

Everyday life words in progress’s over-the-shoulder perspective and discourse with objects

Everyday life words in progress was a nine-day, 90-hour performance by Elvira Santamaría, presented in Toronto by FADO from March 16 to 24, 2007. This durational, process-based work was part of IDea, the final series I organized as FADO’s Performance Art Curator. Mounted in a small Queen Street West storefront, part of what was then Katharine Mulherin Contemporary Art Projects, the performance had an unusual time structure, running for 18 hours on its initial Friday opening, then decreasing in duration by two hours each day until the final two hours on the second Saturday. The piece unfolded as a creative residency in which the gallery served a hybrid role as artist studio, intimate performance venue, and cumulative installation site animated by Elvira’s ongoing, mostly nonverbal presence.

Audience members could choose to watch the performance through the window from the street, or they could enter the space, a small, high-ceilinged room with a floor area of roughly nine square metres. The door to the street was kept locked, posted with a sign encouraging people to knock if they wished to enter. When Elvira was working alone, she would open the door for anyone wanting access. When other audience members were already inside, they generally obliged new visitors by letting them in. Because the room was relatively small, there were seldom more than five or six audience members inside the gallery at any one time. Visitors tended to sit or stand along the periphery, often working their way around the space to examine the various elements in greater detail.

The underlying structure Elvira followed for her performance was simple. Each day, she would stop at a 24-hour convenience store (Super Queen’s Market) on her way to the space, choosing two local newspapers from a selection that included The Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, the Toronto Sun, and the National Post. These newspapers would provide the primary material and inspiration for her actions. The gallery was minimally furnished with a single black wooden chair and a rickety metal folding card table. Along with the papers, Elvira brought with her a small array of artist supplies, including a glue stick, scotch tape, thread, string, wire, scissors, different types of thumbtacks (including a set of tacks with numbers printed on their heads), various needles, fishing hooks and lead sinker weights, clear plastic baggies, some small white candles, thicker but shorter than a birthday candle, and a book of matches.

Dressed entirely in monotone black—pants, tunic, socks and shoes—Elvira would spend her time at the gallery creating actions and tableaux using the day’s newspapers. Some of her time would be spent leafing through the papers and reading articles of interest; this was particularly true of the first several days, when the actions began while it was still dark and the streets were largely empty. She would then cut out headline or ad words and phrases that caught her interest to be shaped into two-dimensional collages or three-dimensional sculptural constructions and mobiles incorporating the materials she had at hand.

Some words would be pinned to the wall or glued to the window; others were left sitting loose on the table like fridge magnet poetry. Whole articles or extended passages from articles might be strung together as streamers and hung from the walls and ceiling or trailed along the floor. Some words or phrases would evoke simple actions, as when she walked around the gallery carrying the word “WALK” dangling from a thread.

The newspaper pages also became a distinct material. One set of coloured tabloid pages was slowly transformed into a wall sculpture. Working with one sheet at a time, Elvira stood on the chair, slowly crumpling up each sheet with one hand until it became a ball in her closed fist, held out like an offering, but at the same time secreted away. After crumpling each sheet, she would stand unmoving for an extended tableau, gazing at her fist as if she might somehow absorb the paper’s contents through her grasp. Finally, she would break her pose and pin the ball along a growing horizontal row set at midriff height on one of the walls. On the opposite wall, a different set of pages was unfolded and attached in overlapping sequence. Each sheet was secured by one corner, so that the air drafts in the room transformed the papers into a subtlely wafting and whispering presence, all the more striking in their animation when Elvira was holding a static pose.

As the days progressed, some elements remained while others were altered or removed to make room for new ones. Any newspaper materials left unused at the end of the day were stacked in one corner in a growing pile that would not be revisited.

Everyday life words in progress‘s hybrid, process-oriented structure offers a useful model for considering some basic questions related to performance art methods, dialogues, and audience expectations, particularly around using the artist’s body as a “material” in an artwork, and how this can differ from traditional performing arts approaches. Of course Everyday life words in progress is only one artist’s project, not a blueprint for all performance art works; one of the beauties of performance art is its variety—the idea that it has not been codified into a rigid set of strategies, approaches, or concerns. If there is something that makes Elvira’s work exemplary, it is not to be found in the particular formal choices she made, but in a more general willingness to not simply take for granted any one particular method for shaping time, space, materials and audience relationships.

One common approach used to define performance art as a genre is to compare its presentational style to previously existing disciplines. When identifying performance art as either distinct from or in relation to the performing arts, discussions tend to position performance art at one end of a spectrum of values and techniques, with theatre—and to some extent dance and music—at the other end. Alain-Martin Richard (2014) provides a thoughtful analysis that exemplifies this tendency in his article “Les 20 jours du théâtre à risque.” He outlines a 12-point heuristic in order to position a series of live works along a scale that runs between theatre and performance, with the caveat that no work is ever likely to belong absolutely to one pole or the other. Each end of the spectrum is a limit case rather than an ideal that certifies whether one is witnessing theatre or performance art. His ranges of potentially defining characteristics include acting/non-acting; fictional time/real time; dramaturgy/process; finite/open; and human at the centre/human in immersion.

Similarly, Michael Kirby’s “On Acting and Not-Acting” (1972) offers a practice analysis of the performance spectrum between acting and not-acting, in which he describes not-acting as a type of performance “that values the concrete as opposed to the pretended or simulated and that does not require plots or stories” (p. 14). In his acting/not-acting scale, Kirby places what he calls “non-matrixed” performing at one end. In such works, the performer “is merely himself and is not embedded, as it were, in matrices of pretended or represented character, situation, place, and time” (p. 4). As with Richard’s heuristic, Kirby’s scale suggests not one but several, overlapping spectrums of aesthetic or artistic convention. Artists may or may not have a defined stage area, for example, or an announced start and finish time. They may or may not adopt a persona. They may or may not wear a costume. They may or may not employ scripted lines. Some performances privilege liminality, playing with the threshold where behaviour becomes recognizable as a performance. In others, the performers may try to maintain an appearance and demeanour that they consider neutral, though such a stance must be understood to be “noninnocent,” to borrow a term from Donna Haraway, since neutrality can only be understood within a situated context.

Performance art’s supposed non-acting or “neutral” body, for example, might be read against an archetypal theatrical or “acting” body on a stage, or perhaps compared to a presumed non-performing body—that is, a body that does not feel itself to be made strange by the scrutiny of being witnessed by an audience. As with Elvira’s black clothing, the most common “neutral” presentation of bodies in performance art often includes an all-black outfit. Parallel to this is a tendency toward an emotionally muted deportment. Neither of these characteristics could be understood to be anything approaching neutrality in a non-performance context, any more than the white cube of an art gallery is neutral, but their ubiquity, as well as their attempt to flatten out the possibility of reading the artist’s inner emotional life, gives the semblance of a neutral valence in a performance art context. What these choices tend to signal, as a stance, is that the audience should pay attention to what happens as a result of what a performer does using materials that may include her own body, not to how she emotes. In other words, “Don’t look at me; look at what I am doing.

This “look at what I am doing” stance suggests that a performance artist’s “materiality” is not purely sculptural, visual, or compositional, any more than an actor’s materiality is purely emotional, or a dancer’s materiality is purely gestural. The animateness (or in the uncanny stillness of a tableau, the lack of animateness) of a human body is as important to its materiality as its formal and fleshy qualities of shape, texture and surface. Asserting a human body as a potential art material means also opening up to the possibility of appropriating various possibilities of that body—its intentionality, its agency, its unpredictability, its responsiveness, its style—into what might count as the artwork’s material.

Certainly, Elvira’s emphasis on the materiality of her body was evident from the very first action of Everyday life words in progress, in which she took a section of her hair and used it to pin herself to the wall. This action emphasized her body as a manipulable material. Similarly, the remnants of her body were highlighted as materials, as she collected her loose hairs and draped them over a fishhook on the wall. Some of these hairs would occasionally be used as threads to suspend words and phrases she had cut out of the newspapers.

Elvira’s actions often seemed designed to emphasize her body as an object among other objects in the space by deliberately thwarting the possibility of face-to-face exchange. One of her gestures, for example, was to sit in the chair and tilt forward so that her dark hair, which extended below the bottom of her shoulder blades, would cover her face. This keeled-over position, held as a tableau, emphasized her presence not as a human agent, but as sheer material form. In another repeated tableau, she would place the chair on its side on the floor, its back to the audience, and nestle her body into it, as if the room had been titled by 90 degrees. Indeed, most of her actions were oriented away from both the front window and the audience members inside the gallery, rarely taking a presentational or proscenium stance in relation to her witnesses.

One of the few actions done at the window used a broadsheet entitled Public Notice—a local activist pamphlet she had found in her wanderings of Toronto—printed on thick paper. The broadsheet was curled into two tubes that were positioned against her eyes as she pressed toward the window, evoking the image of looking out through a set of binoculars. Although she could presumably see out through the cylinders, it was not possible to see her eyes in this pose, either from inside the gallery or from the street.

While “look at what I am doing” often prompts an audience to consider a performer’s bodily materiality—drawing their attention not to the performer’s “subjective” face but to her body’s “objective” surfaces and actions—this way of working can also suggest that perhaps the “performer” is not always meant to be the key focus of the audience’s attention in a performance art work. The performer may simply be an animator of a situation that is the real locus of experience, or she may be the manipulator of objects that, in the way they are transformed, constitute the true stars of the show. It may even be that what the artist does is only an initial provocation, and the “art” really begins with the way the audience responds. “Look at what I am doing,” after all, is not only about where one looks, or what one looks at, but also about how one looks. In the case of Everyday life words in progress, the audience was not encouraged, for the most part, to face the artist in order to see what she was doing, but to watch the actions unfold from what one might call an over-the-shoulder perspective. Frequently, audience members would find themselves looking at her from behind, either watching her back or peering over her shoulder at whatever she was making or doing with her hands, whether sitting at the table or working against one of the white gallery walls.

What Elvira offered in Everyday life words in progress, then, was not the confrontational, emotionally directed, one-on-one stance of the face-to-face, communicated in the melodrama of the gaze, but a discourse with objects, engaging an over-the-shoulder perspective that invited others to enter into dialogue by looking at and potentially contributing to what she was doing.

In an interview with Óscar Benassini (2016) for the Mexican cultural magazine La Tempestad, Elvira Santamaría makes the bold claim,

I dare to state that I don’t use objects in a performance but instead enter into a dialogue with them. This idea is a framework for action that can reveal something about reality, both to me and to someone else. In this same way, and with even more reason, I refuse to use another human being (n.p, emphasis added).[1]

Elvira specifically contrasts the idea of use with that of entering into dialogue, offering a comparison with two important implications. First, there is the suggestion that she approaches objects as others in themselves, worthy of respect and capable of speaking, if not in human language, in a way that nevertheless has meaning and can open onto a world distinct from her own. Second, her approach suggests that human discourse is not always a direct exchange of content transmitted and received between individuals, but an intricately mediated shaping and rearranging of temporal, spatial and material conditions and relationships that brings various entities, including humans, into co-presence.

Elvira elaborates on the idea of dialogue with objects as a performance method in Gustaf Broms’s 9Questions (2018), writing that she seeks

to get to know materials in a non-ordinary way, to dialogue with them to discover what they can mean or how they can be something different and nevertheless, to explore the internal logic that connects their existence (too little explored) with our mental processes. Therefore, I am also interested in them as a vehicle of poetry in action and as recipients of emotions or anxieties to be transformed creatively in the joy of the experience (p. 24).[2]

This passage conveys something of the complexity involved in dialoguing with objects. To know objects in a “non-ordinary way” is to move beyond how we first encounter them as objects, whether by personal habit or established cultural expectation. This is in line with Viktor Shklovsky’s idea of art’s role as defamiliarizing or “making strange” aspects of the world around us. Understanding this process as a dialogue suggests something more, however; it positions a material not simply as strange, but as a stranger—an other with its own stories to tell or world to reveal. Materials, according to Elvira, have their own “existence,” even when the exploration of that existence is set against a backdrop of interactions aimed at or witnessed by a self and by like others, that is, by other humans. Even though one’s role in the dialogue with an object takes place from a human perspective—in relation to one’s “internal logic” and “mental processes”—this is more than an anthropomorphizing of the object. Much as we can manipulate or rearrange materials, there is a clear implication that materials have agency to affect and transform the human interlocutor, mentally and physically.

Elvira also references the notion of “poetry in action,” a phrase that evokes a kinetic expressiveness that can communicate as forcefully as any verbal language: a language founded not on words, but on gestures, movements, and actions. The over-the-shoulder perspective offered in Everyday life words in progress encourages its audience to consider that we cannot look into or through others’ eyes to discover their worlds. Instead, we must pay close attention to the way an other manifests in and moves through a shared world that we co-inhabit and are all a part of. This almost certainly entails observing an other’s material surfaces, but also requires a consideration of the ways in which an other’s animate negotiation of its surroundings reveals its own lived world.

Others’ worlds unfold for the self through their responsiveness. To experience or witness an entity in action, whether that action is initiated by the entity itself, or as a response to a provocation, is to confirm that it has a world of its own, a world that seldom conforms in absolute accordance with what we anticipate or know. In a rare verbal conversation with an audience member during Everyday life words in progress, Elvira referred to the “aleatory” nature of this way of working, which, she says, “keeps me aware and interested. […] When I do performance I create a problem, but I don’t know if I can create the solution.”[3] This points to the open-ended nature of dialogue, emphasizing that Elvira is more interested in learning something from her engagement with a material than with achieving a particular result or turning it into an end product.

Many of Elvira’s performances involve materials and actions without ever including verbal or written language. Everyday life words in progress is notable within her oeuvre for the way it engaged with written language as a material, entering into dialogue with words that, as the contents of a newspaper, already reflected a highly determined set of communicative intentions and representational structures. For Elvira, Toronto newspapers offered foreign viewpoints and dealt with unfamiliar local contexts. This otherness was heightened by her incomplete knowledge of English, which is not her mother tongue. Working with a small pocket Spanish-English dictionary and once or twice asking native English speakers for clarification, she would occasionally have to verify the intended meaning of particular words or colloquial idioms, such as the expression “gun shy.” She often found humourous ways to highlight this strangeness, as when, on the first day, she glued various versions of the word Canadian, in different headline sizes and fonts, onto the gallery window so that they could be read from the street. Amid these iterations was one word not like the others, also taken from a newspaper headline: Martian. This word-collage referenced alienness and identity while shifting the conversation to an unexpected perspective. How Elvira entered into dialogue with the newspapers and their contents as materials—articulating, arranging and rearranging components into discrete objects and configurations—is instructive of the way entities are defined within, through, and as a part of larger systems of meaning.

Everyday life words in progress explores how words as a material share a plasticity with objects; there is a close relationship between the hand that shapes and the mouth that speaks. Many might call Elvira’s process deconstructive in the way it called attention to the material and discursive resources that constitute a newspaper by isolating and reconfiguring them. In the Óscar Benassini interview, Elvira herself asserts, “I am interested in deconstructing objects by dialoguing with them, with their physical qualities, functions, history, values and my own projections onto them.” Here, however, deconstruction should be viewed more as a methodological starting point than an overall philosophical approach. While Elvira’s physical interactions with the newspaper texts—isolating and reconfiguring individual words, phrases, passages, and articles—certainly exposed some of their inherent contradictions as linguistic and conceptual constructions, her process of responsiveness and articulation was more generative than hermetic. Her interventions were at least as much constructive as deconstructive, placing the texts —not only as content, but also as physical and kinetic materials: ink printed on paper, black against white, with shape, volume, mass, depth, surface, smell, and so forth—into relationship with other objects and distinct, sometimes contradictory approaches to meaningfulness. Each action or textual construction was both an articulation and a proposition.

Dialogue in this context cannot be relegated to a single way of working. Elvira employed numerous strategies, ranging from quiet contemplation, as when she tacked a square with the headline

Birth and

to the wall and sat quietly facing it for an extended period of time, to a less deliberate form of address, as with another square bearing the headline


which was placed in various locations over the course of the performance, sometimes sitting among other phrases on the card table, sometimes sitting on the floor and held in place by two sinker weights that were simultaneously part of another suspended sculptural construction. While the first text prompted a formal period of focused solemnity, the second evoked a more random, mercurial interaction that might suddenly coalesce in one’s field of vision like a Zen flash of awareness.

Similarly, the phrase High hopes was attached to a lower portion of wall, visible to visitors sitting on the floor through Elvira’s legs when she sat working at the card table. Another word, Anesthesia, could be found jutting out like a flag from a weighted thread hanging between ceiling and floor, while many individual words or phrases, like Not Art or FUTURE, fluttered delicately from fishhooks suspended throughout the space. Several constructions used threads strung across portions of the space that had words hung on them with fishhooks to evoke a progression, as when the words Birth and Death from the square headline noted above were isolated as individual words and hung at opposite ends of a thread, with another word, RELEASE, dangling in between.

In the final days of the performance, Elvira bisected the gallery space by stretching strings across the front third of the room at eye level, like a clothesline. The strings were joined at the centre by the word EVOLUTION, forming a horizontal banner that audience members would have to duck underneath as they moved about the space. Several other newspaper constructions were also hung on this line at different times.

Some constructions formed elaborate shapes. One newspaper page, tacked onto the wall the first day—where it remained for the duration of the performance—had some of the columns of its lower half articulated to look like an unravelling sweater. Elvira cut into the spaces between each row of print from alternating sides, so that the column of type became a continuous, trailing ribbon of words that hung down from the mounted page. These paper ribbons would drift across the gallery floor whenever the door was opened. Another newspaper article was transformed into a hanging mobile, each row of type carefully cut and stacked one atop the other, threaded through the centre and suspended in midair off the lighting grid to form a delicately drooping mass balanced by a sinker counterweight. Other passages of text were cut into rows and joined at one end to create arrangements that could be tacked to the wall like a spread fan or suspended from threads or strings like a tassel.

In the final few days of the performance, Elvira occasionally read portions of text aloud. A passage detailing “How man is classified as homo sapiens,” its original column rows pasted together to form a continuous, unbroken ribbon of words and hung like a streamer, was read in reverse, beginning with the final word and progressing toward its origin, so that the author’s intended narrative could only be grasped by through a painstaking and attentive process of mental retention and reconstruction—echoing the way one must follow and reconstruct traces of the world to extrapolate a theory of its evolution. Another text was cut into strips and formed into a loose ball that Elvira held in her hands and massaged with her fingers to isolate different fragments that she would then recite, evoking the image of a soothsayer gazing into a crystal ball.

Some actions used the newspapers in entirely non-textual ways. One newspaper had each of its sections rolled into tight tubes that were then placed on the floor to be used like architectural building forms or spatial measuring devices. Also, not all of Elvira’s actions involved a direct manipulation of the newspapers. Some days, she chose to end the session by impaling one of her small candles on a fishhook suspended near one of the walls, setting it alight and watching it burn as it cast a shadowy glow over the text constructions and collages until, after a time—more than five but less than ten minutes—the candle fell to the floor and went out. She also marked the passage of the days using her numbered thumbtacks to track the number of hours (18, 16, 14 …), adding a new tack each day in a descending column, each new numbered tack separated by a hand’s width. Alongside each would be pinned the day’s newspaper dateline. A string was also tied to the tack marking the current day, extending upwards in a diagonal to a hook near the corner of the ceiling and attached to a sinker weight. After setting the day’s tack, Elvira would stand upright facing the growing column, one arm raised with the string held between her middle and index finger. She would swing her straightened arm to one side, arcing it between zenith and horizon line like the hand of a clock. This action would lift the opposing weight, making an almost imperceptible mark on the wall as it was dragged upward. Then she would tie the string to its new lower position, which raised the weight by a comparable hand’s width toward the ceiling.

It is difficult for me as an audience witness, watching over Elvira’s shoulder, to assert with certainty what her motivations for these particular actions might have been if we take the performance’s title, Everyday life words in progress, as the index by which all of her actions should be read. Were they responses to specific content found in the particular words and articles she had read? Were they meant to be understood as metaphors for the particular agencies and workings of words: providing illumination like a lit candle, causing what we see to flicker before us, asserting an ephemeral presence? Should words be appreciated for the way they facilitate the marking of time, or as inscribers of surfaces? Or, could Elvira’s gestures best be understood not as communicative actions aimed at reaching human witnesses, but rather as strategies for entering into dialogue with the words themselves as her pertinent others?

The atmosphere of the gallery, like the changing actions and installation works, was in constant flux, affected by the arrival and departure of visitors, the changing light and weather conditions, and the unpredictability of what would appear in the daily newspapers. Elvira’s dialogue aimed at a responsive cohesiveness that could acknowledge and account for these varied and unpredictable parameters. In the documented conversation cited above, she told the inquiring visitor,

I am looking for a balance […] among what I’m finding in the newspaper, the conditions of this space, the people who come in… For me, this [pointing to the gallery walls] is a world—even [if they] are very simple things, and fragile—but it creates a world.

Perhaps the balance that Elvira sought included a balancing of just who or what she was in dialogue with at any one time. Addressing what she found in a newspaper meant sometimes concerning herself with its materiality—the way the paper could be folded and cut, the degree to which the paper could maintain its stiffness when hanging, the sound a sheet would make when it was flapped or crumpled, the way the newsprint rubbed off onto her fingers, which would regularly become black with ink; sometimes, with its formal construction and conventions—its size, its standardized sections devoted to particular topics, the inclusion and placement of pictures and graphics, advertising, crosswords, horoscopes and other “non-news” content; sometimes, with its language—isolating particular words or phrases; and sometimes, with the ideas of individual authors or with larger societal assumptions and issues expressed or reflected in articles. One article given particular prominence, for example, was a column by Sheila Copps, former deputy prime minister of Canada and at the time a regular columnist with the Toronto Sun, entitled “Stop allowing immigrants to flood our big cities.”

Addressing the conditions of the space meant adapting to its small floor area and generous height, attending to the placement of objects in relation to the entrance and window, adjusting the track lights as the installation elements shifted, and absorbing and responding to the muffled city soundscape as well as the changing light and temperature. Addressing the visitors required a range of decisions about how to position herself, when to speak, and how to move in relation to their negotiation of the space, since those entering the gallery were as likely to move about inspecting the installation elements as they were to stand against a wall or sit on the floor to watch what she was doing.

Everyday life words in progress models the idea that even a carefully limited and sharply focused dialogue is never fully contained within the face-to-face of two absolute, discrete and solitary entities of self and other, save by the fiat of an idealizing consciousness that chooses to selectively recognize specific entities and messages as mattering while ignoring others. In our daily lives, we might find ourselves in dialogue with people, animals, objects, or even our environment. Sometimes we enter into dialogue with an idea, which need not take place as a conversation with another human or humans. This suggests that a dialogue may sometimes not engage with a material entity at all, but with something more pervasive than tangible. We can find ourselves rebelling at the “world,” caught up in the discourse of a particular culture, or testing the expectations of society, responding to processes that cannot be attributed to one specific cause, whether “human” or “natural,” or seeking counsel with forces or agencies perhaps named as an amorphous, seemingly omnipotent, and occasionally anthropomorphized grand cause, like “the gods” or “God.”

If dialogue need not be with a human other, it also need not take place in language or as speech. Exchanges between a self and an other are effected not as a direct transmission of data, but through interventions into our interlocutors’ shared four-dimensional environment.  We communicate by altering the fabric of our surroundings—through sound, through gesture and movement, through the reshaping of matter. As we enlist the temporal, spatial and material resources of our environment, we also involve other entities and agencies that inevitably shape what can and cannot be shared as meaningful.

To be sure, there are countless ways that language can illuminate Elvira’s actions and constructions with delightful, metaphorically literal descriptions: suspended words, hanging words, weighted words, drifting words, progressive words, words that frame one’s view. These descriptive metaphors, however, which in Everyday life words in progress are enacted precisely by a kinetic and sculptural materialization of words as individualized entities made from ink and paper, are not simply namings of proper nouns. Rather, they are indexes of relationality and actional effect; they mean nothing except as they are formulated, reconfigured and acted upon within a shared, four-dimensional world.

Elvira Santamaría’s Everyday life words in progress enacted discourse not as a direct linguistic transmission from performer to audience, but as an active looking over each other’s shoulders to catch sight of a dialogue with and through objects. Words were revealed as one type of manipulable and appropriable kinetic material among many that can express content in various material-discursive systems and registers of signification, not only those of conventional human language. In this vision of discourse, properly understood more broadly as material-discursive practice, not only words, but every agent enlisted into or appearing through discourse—the sayers, the said-tos, the said-withs, and the said-abouts—become potential players in a process of shared meaning-making.

Paul Couillard


Benassini, Ó. (2016, November 8). Elvira Santamaría, entrevista. La tempestad. Retrieved from http://www.latempestad.mx/elvira-santamaria-entrevista/

Broms G., Ed. (2018). 9Questions. Toronto: Fado Performance Art Centre & Centre for Orgchaosmik Studies.

Kirby, M. (1972). On acting and not-acting. The drama review: TDR 16(1), 3-15.

Richard, A.-M. (2014). Les 20 jours du theatre à risque. In Couillard, P. & Liva, A., Eds. Alain-Martin Richard: Performances, manœuvres et autres hypothèses de disparition / Performances, manoeuvres and other hypotheses for disappearing. Toronto, ON/Québec, QC: Fado Performance Inc., Sagamie édition d’art & Les Causes perdues in©. 88-107. (Original work published 1992)

[1] Translated from the Spanish original with the assistance of Francisco-Fernando Granados. I consulted Granados to verify that he, as a fluent Spanish speaker, reads the same nuances in this passage that I do.

[2] Elvira’s remarks are in response to Broms’s question, “What motivates you to introduce MATERIALS/OBJECTS into your work?”

[3] My transcription from the video documentation I recorded of the performance. These comments were made on the third day, during the March 18 session.

Arborite Housedress Script


This is about a domestic love-affair between myself and advanced interior decorating technique. This is about the in-between of my placement, of my desire. Me, in-between: wallpaper valances, contrasting trim, kitchen islands, ferns.

This is about me, trying to make the look work; me, wanting it to all hang together; me, giving it that je ne sais pas; and me, getting the details right, the little things, the finishing touches.

Oh, oh and that feels so…hard.
Oh, oh, oh, and I’m so very…pointed.
Oh and yes and oh…I think I’ll… clean up a bit.


I am so clean! I am so white! I’m so up, pro, up, pro, up on life!
‘Cause I’ve got a contract, a done deal, signed (clap), sealed delivered
And I’m his.
I’ve been chosen for the whitest, brightest smile.
I’ve been saved, because sin won’t stick to me.
I’ve been taken and it’s about time, too.
I’ve got this contract,
This marriage contract, signed (clap) to him in the big white robe,
Signed (clap) over to his slightly crucified but still attractive son,
And signed (clap) again on earth with ink on paper making me third-hand goods,
A-signed (clap) to a man in the flesh who mows the lawn.

There are so many things that I know, because he says so.
And he should know because he makes them happen.
The weather, that’s him.
American foreign policy, that’s him, too.
Natural disasters, prime-time programming, he does it all
His way.
A real self-starter, a self man-made
In his own image:
The weather, American foreign policy, natural disasters, prime-time programming,
And me.
Not bad, eh?
Not too shabby.
Kinda scary!
I mean, I wouldn’t want to get on his bad side, no.
Because the dark side of good is really bad.
I know, because I’m so good.
I’m so clean! I’m so white! I’m so up, pro, up, pro, up on life!


Marriage is a lot like driving a car. Let’s say you’re going on a little trip, just the two of you. You pack your bags, jump in, and go. Now, how many of you are sitting behind the steering wheel? How many of you are actually doing the driving? That’s right, only one of you. There’s only room for one person in the driver’s seat. And what does he do? He controls the direction and speed of the vehicle. He indicates which way he’ll be turning and he toots the horn. In short he carefully maneuvers the car for the good and safety of all of the passengers. But that doesn’t mean that the co-pilot isn’t very important, too. When there’s two people in the car, she reads the map, finds the best radio station, provides pleasant conversation, and passes snacks to the driver. She has a very busy job, but she is not driving. In fact, what would happen if she reached over and grabbed the steering wheel? What would happen if she suddenly decided it was her turn? The car would go out of control, wouldn’t it? Even if she just leaned over to flick on the headlights, even that would startle the driver, and he might get into an accident. This shows us a very important point. When people don’t do what they’re supposed to do, when people don’t stick to their jobs, they end up hurting not only themselves, but others as well. Let’s take a look at Adam and Eve in the garden. When Eve took that apple, who was in the driver’s seat? And where did she end up driving them? You know where. Down a one-way freeway straight out of paradise. Eve took a wrong turn. But her big mistake was taking the wheel in the first place. Not only did it have serious repercussions for her, her family, and the entire course of human history, it also made Adam feel bad. Not only was it an extremely dangerous thing to do, it also hurt Adam’s feelings. And that’s not very nice, is it? It’s not very nice, and it’s not very smart. Because the driver can get in the car alone, and still start it up and make it run. He might get a little lost, he might not get any snacks, but he can still get up and go. Whereas the co-pilot, when she climbs into the car by herself, ends up spending a lot of time in the driveway, just reading those maps.


The dark side of good is really bad.
I know, because I am so good, so clean, so white
That every dirty thought shows up bright-
Ly on my immaculate construction.
Every dirty thought can be read like an open book
Spelling what I want and how I want it, when.
Words you see scratched on bathroom walls.
Words you’re embarrassed to know.
Humiliating, needy words
Show up
On my complexion.

Romance Novels

My fantasies exist between the pages of paperback novels published every four days in fourteen languages for an average cost of $4.95…Canadian.
Reading Windswept Summer, Nurses’ Folly, or Indiscretion at Midnight
In Punjabi, Cantonese, or Cree
Is the only reason I can think of for bothering to learn another language.
Those foreigners, the way they speak,
It’s as if they’re always yelling.
But I’m sure that those languages wouldn’t sound so bad
Tripping from the lips of
Clark Cowell, Troubled Millionaire,
Whistled from between the teeth of
Flint Blackwell, Brilliant-But-Lonely Surgeon,
Or whispered by
Jon (that’s J-O-N) Johnson, International Explorer, Oxford-Educated, Hunk-A-Burning-Love, who has a Six-Figure Annuity and has Never Really Loved Before.
I know this is awfully liberal of me to admit
But if Jon Johnson was willing to take me
To his ancestral castle in the south of France,
Make love to me for hours every day,
And ask me what I think from time to time
I wouldn’t mind if he spoke Lebanese, or Zulu, or…French.
I really wouldn’t mind too much.
I wouldn’t mind a bit.

Fantasy #1 – Border Town Romances

Fantasy #1: Border town romances (twirl).
What makes border town romances so…special?
The meeting of culture? The mystery of difference?
The preciousness of each and every moment?
Or is it the pain of longing? The difficulty of talking?
The disapproval of one’s family and friends?
Perhaps it’s that they only exist in the present.
You probably won’t have time to discover each other’s personal habits.
Taking out a mortgage together just isn’t in the cards.
And across that border you have a better chance of being shot, than of getting pregnant.
It makes sex seem less risky.
It makes sex seem more fun.
It makes you feel that the border doesn’t really exist.
Your love is stronger than its walls.
Your love transcends all obstacles.
Your love is absolutely, positively unique.
While it lasts.
Oh, you know it can’t.
It’s impossible. It’s insane. It’s…O.K.
You have an out. An escape hatch. Fine print.
Because forever is really an awfully long time.
Forever takes too long.
And it all becomes the same after awhile:
On and on and on without end.
So, if you’re lucky, it’ll be tragic.
It’ll be epic, yet it’ll be quick.
Your love will be spectacular from start to finish.
And afterwards you can cry and cry, grieve and remember.
You’ll live with your memories
And you have more time to shop for other things.


My fears in life are few and far between:
Saturated fat,

Sagging Flesh

A woman’s foundations are exceedingly important in an increasingly gravity filled world. This sneaky phenomenon—gravity—this downward pull that threatens my very concept of up and down, replacing it with lower, lower, lower; this force is actively conspiring against us for no other reason than spiteful adherence to some banal law of physics. It’s a bit of a downer, to say the least. As I find my flesh collecting in puddles at my feet, my nipples lolling in hard to find places like corners, under beds, beneath bric-a-brac shelves, constantly getting stuck in the hose of my vacuum cleaner. But the real problem is not the extra housework that these downwardly mobile body parts entail. I hesitate to admit it, but it’s true: my very real concern is that parts of my dangerously sagging self might end up in bad neighbourhoods. And what then? How could I fight? There’s no bleach strong enough to save my shimmering self. I could scrub and scrub and rub and rub, but those streets, those people will never know sparkling, lemon fresh, central vac, and snow white appliances. How could they? Their ways are uncertain and unsafe, not even aware of the dirt under their nails, the bacteria populating their surfaces, their skins dark and shadowy. They may be happy in their ways, but how could I manage among them? Surely no better than they among us.

These are the thoughts that keep me awake nights worrying, that stain my dress with rings of nervous perspiration throughout the day. For it seems not improbable that bits of my body might end up there, on the wrong side of the tracks. And therefore to continue to believe that the line between “me” and “them”, “same” and “Different” is firm and perky would be naive. Especially when the stretches and wrinkles in my skin illustrate how fluid my own borders are. So perhaps it’s alarmist, and perhaps it’s not, but I cannot sit idly by and await this prodigal fate. I must women my defenses and women them well; batten my hatches, and buckle and snap myself into underwear that binds and separates, having painfully evolved from lingerie to veritable architecture.


My fears in life are few, it’s true,
But my fantasies can’t be counted.

Fantasy #2 – The List

Fantasy #2: achieving everything on my to-do list (twirl).
As I suck dirt into my waiting bag of empty, clean space
As I fill the interior of my open-plan, decorator-deluxe hollowness
I think of curtain stays,
Grid suspended pot racks,
Self-feeding electrical cords,
And other time-saving restraints.
I can’t get enough of this dirt.
Frankly, it’s just not dirty enough for me.
But I’m trying to make do, trying to make out
Tiny specs that have fallen between my cracks
That I can come to on my hands and knees
And rub and scrub until I slip in the grease of my own elbows.
The dust and the grime of this house are mine
Traces of my body that I massage
With brushes and sprays and an entire array
Of highly toxic germ fighting solutions
To the problem of “a woman’s work never really being done.”
It sounds like a small thing to get excited over — dirt —
But then we are expected to get excited over little things.
And this proof of my untidy, ever-exfoliating self
Tells me I am here
I am real in this world of gloss
The mess I feel is real.
I know it—it is of me—and it knows me
It knows my flesh.
It knows, and it holds me there,
Bent over sinks,
Arms deep in toilets,
Crawling across floors
Wanting the dirtiness of dirt.
Wanting to take back the dirt.
Take back me.
Take it in.
Suck it in.
Lick it in.
Be in dirt.
Be in me.
Come in me.

But I want it, I want it, I want it. All. Instead of this scary get-down, show down, between none other, is there anything worse, than saturated communism, and sneaky, pinko fat?

Marriage Quiz

One: Question. What makes marriage so attractive?
Two: Bigger student loans? A good excuse to move out of your parents home? Wedding presents?
One: No. I mean, why did you marry? What led up to your decision to join together in holy union?
Two: It seemed like a good idea at the time.
One: But haven’t there been benefits to being a married woman?
Two: Could you repeat the question?
One: Let’s try another one. When I say, “To have and to hold…,” you think of….
Two: Strangulation? Suffocation? The correlation between ownership and theft?
One: When I say, “‘Till death do us part…,” you feel….
Two: Homicidal? Suicidal? Resistant to the concept of reincarnation?
One: You’re not trying very hard. We’ll try again. Question. What does marriage mean to you?
Two: Infinite compromise. Sacrifice. Selflessness. Losing oneself entirely.
One: That’s better! And who is the most important person to remember in a marriage?
Two: Me! Him? (pause) God? (bells and whistles)

Fantasy #3 – Lesbian Nation

Fantasy #3: lesbian nation (twirl).
Being a domestic goddess isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Have you ever noticed that you can wash the floor in the morning, by nightfall it looks just the same as before you started? That you can do all of the dishes, and in a matter of hours someone has gone and dirtied them again? That children are little grime magnets, picking up all manner of stubborn stains and bringing them home again?

Well, I’ve been thinking. If I could get rid of my family, it would effectively cut my work load by 60%. And then I would finally have time to devote myself more fully to being a homemaker. Then I could start to get ahead in the domestic world. Make something of myself. Achieve those far off goals. Perhaps move up to a ranch style. Without PTA or connubial duties getting in the way.

And you know, I bet I’m not the only one. I bet there are hundreds, maybe thousands, maybe even millions of women who would also benefit from the absence of men and children in their lives. As it is now, think of all the wasted human potential. Think of how clean it could be, if we were all freed from the inconvenience of those to whom we are joined by blood and marriage. I, for one, would have more time to devote to the common good. I’d gladly spend a half-hour vacuuming the boulevard, and afternoon dusting a jungle-jim. I, and others like me, would getup our gumption and get out of the home to make the entire world a spic-er, span-er place. There’s no end to what we could acheive together. We could tidy up toxic waste sites! Redecorate urban decay! Sew some shoulder pads into the economy! Why it would be paradise! It would be sparkling! It would be the first lesbian, separatist nation!


I’m so clean, I’m so white
I’m so crisp and hard and still and right
That every twitch and tremor I make turns out left or wrong
Proof positive of a strong predisposition toward voluntary hysteria.
I slice my palms on the creases of my dress.
Everything is so well pressed.
It’s a problem area.
I am a problem area.
This is the problem:


I am a domestic alter
Location of discipline, receiver of guilt
My lipstick (kisses palms) glows bloody
The wound in my side a testament
To the persistent pain of splinters
Chaffing me each time I try to move
In this bungalow that never fit
In the first place
There was Eve
Experiencing for the first time the downward pull
The long fall from grace to graceful A-lines
In no-stick, hi-gloss, easy-to-maintain finishes
To a place where everyone has the same blood-type: clean
And whiteness and Godliness
And might and right
And home and family
All tidily equal up
In a divine floor plan
Three bedrooms, sunken living room, patio off the breakfast nook,
Repeated over and over and over again
Tomorrow is another day
-Ly bread, our kingdom comes
Unlike me
In this straight jacket against desire
Where passion plays on TV
And we only communicate in clichés
Based on stories that only end badly
For me.

Exercise On Experiencing Ephemerality

The following performance exercise is by Marilyn Arsem. You can find it on page 192 of the new publication about Arsem’s work entitled Responding to Site: The performance work of Marilyn Arsem.

Exercise On Experiencing Ephemerality

In a course on documenting ephemeral work, I being by examining the reasons that we try to hold onto the past, as well as the ways that our memories are fluid and elusive. Early in the course I give this task:

  1. Chose a place nearby that you have always wanted to visit and see, but have not yet gone.
  2. Go there, taking as much time as you wish to explore and experience the place.
  3. Before you leave, choose one object to bring back as a souvenir. Only one.
  4. And finally, you must agree never to return to that place again.

Initially this exercise appears mundane, until the final stipulation of never returning is added. The most revealing part of the process is each student’s debate on where they will go, knowing that they can’t return. The ones that choose the place they most desire have the most intense experience, and those that play it safe and choose a place that has minimal significance for them have the least meaningful experience.

I designed this exercise in an effort to replicate the experience of making a performance or other ephemeral work, and the profound feeling of loss that can occur when it is over. In particular, I am interested in pointing out that this kind of work is not unlike one’s own life, in that you cannot return to the past, but only—and if you are lucky—save a relic or memory of it.

Notes on a High Tea

“I’m not sure where any of this is going but don’t throw any of it out.”
~Shannon Cochrane (heavily paraphrased)

Gallerist Paul Petro refers to my new association with Jeanne Randolph as a “forced mentorship.” He might be right. I’m not sure myself what this new relationship is. Given that Jeanne Randolph has been on my mind so much (I just mailed her a Christmas card) I started to think that I need to do a hard think and ask myself ‘what is it?’ Finally, a decent thought came into my head:

Performance as Lecture
Lecture as Performance

Not a new idea but I think my association to Jeanne / with Jeanne is a desire to move into 

Performance as Lecture
Lecture as Performance

I have tried. In 2015 The Belljar Café in Toronto gave me the opportunity to present a campy, one-off lecture / performance using the 1985 film “Desperately Seeking Susan” as a reference point. I decide to take it all very seriously. My Performance Lecture was entitled “States of Confusion, Amnesia and Loss of Control.” It went “okay”. Not great. Not bad. Certainly something worth re visiting one day. But I haven’t tried or been inspired to try another Performance Lecture

Lecture Performance since.

Moving into 2020 and 2021 I have been slightly re inspired to try my skills again—using Jeanne Randolph and her Performance Lecture style as a reference. In March 2021 I received a $4,000 grant from The Ontario Arts Council to reach out to Jeanne Randolph and use her as a catalyst for  my possible upcoming Performance work, ideas and inspiration. Ideas were tossed around with friends and the concept of a High Tea was decided upon.

On Sunday September 26th, 2021 from 11:30am–1:30pm at The Windsor Arms Hotel in Toronto, twenty-six artists gathered in The Purple Tea Room for a High Tea. Jeanne Randolph was the catalyst for this memorable event. For those who know me well—tea and sweets are not my thing. I probably had one or two sips of the stuff and foolishly ate too many sweets not fully remembering that I do not like cakes and things like that.

Looking back, was The High Tea a performance (maybe). Was I super pleased—yes. Would I organize another one? Probably not—one was enough. 

But rethinking The High Tea: was it a Performance? We as artists gathered not in a bar, not in a gallery, not in a performance space but we gathered in a formal room designated for and famous for a High Tea.

What have I been doing since The High Tea? 

Investigating psychoanalysis (and treading very lightly into the unknown). I find that once I sensitize myself to something (in this case psychoanalysis) it seems to be everywhere. People are talking about psychoanalysis, going back to school to become a psychoanalyst, seeing a psychoanalyst and on it goes….

The High Tea for me was thrilling. Thrilling? For me to be able to treat 26 people to something different, special and certainly not every day is thrilling.

Back to the Shannon Cochrane quote from above: I haven’t thrown any of this experience out and it is very true that I have no idea where any of this investigation (High Tea, Jeanne Randolph, Psychoanalysis) will take me but hopefully I will move the idea of Performance as Lecture

Lecture as Performance


Again, not a new idea but an idea worth pursuing in my own way.

Remembering Tari Ito

Tari Ito

1951–September 22, 2021

Tari Ito was a Japanese performance artist, organizer, and activist whose work was featured in events across Asia, Europe and North America. She died earlier this year after a ten-year struggle with ALS—an enormous challenge for an artist whose practice was so intensely focused on body movement. She was greatly loved and respected, and many of us mourn her passing. 

I first met Tari in 1990, when she took part in a nine-city Canadian tour of Japanese performance artists, coordinated by Vancouver’s Western Front. She and fellow artist Haruo Higuma spent a week in Toronto, presenting solo works at A Space and also participating in an open “jam” session with local artists. As I recall, it was Pam Patterson and I, working as members of A Space’s performance art committee, who coordinated Tari’s and Haruo’s Toronto appearances. 

For that project, Tari was performing a work she called Memory of the Epidermis, which involved painting large panels of latex “skin” onto the gallery’s floor in advance of her performance. For the Toronto version, she had to improvise using skin she had already created when she could not find the right kind of rubber latex locally. One of her skin objects was a giant balloon-like rubber sphere, as large as her body, which she ended up pushing, bouncing and rolling around the gallery space before finally corralling it in a corner, all the while speaking to it in Japanese—later she told me her words were something to the effect of “What is this giant blister?” 

The work was visual, aural, and above all kinetic, expressing complex relationships and feelings primarily through movement. The rhythm and texture of the performance was varied, ranging from slow, careful gestures to repetitive, staccato motions, always seemingly in reaction to the elasticity of the latex, which could appear either durable or fragile depending on how it was handled. It did not matter that most of us could not understand what Tari was saying in Japanese as she worked with giant sphere: her tone and intonation, and above all her physical interaction with the wobbly figure, were deeply expressive. This visual and gestural communication was also evident in the performance jam, where several of us worked simultaneously without speaking, sometimes side-by-side, sometimes infiltrating or adding to each other’s actions and visuals, creating a striking series of images that I still remember, some of them as accomplished and polished as a finished performance work. It was a charmed encounter. 

The next time I saw Tari was a year later, when she invited me to Japan to take part in the Tajima Performance Festival, co-organized by Yoshimichi Takei and Kyo Hoshino through the auspices of a private group called Scorpio Project. This was the second (and final) iteration of the festival, which took place at the site of the abandoned Yaso copper mine in Japan’s Fukushima district. Billed as a performance art “camp,” the festival was a unique event that brought together performance artists, noise artists, video artists, and Butoh dancers for a week in the countryside, all of us bunking together on the floors of an old wooden schoolhouse. A group of volunteers prepared three meals a day for the participants, who numbered well over a hundred, and performances were self-scheduled using a large blackboard. Each day, artists who wished to perform would write down the time and place (e.g., the quarry, the dam, the schoolhouse grounds, the school gymnasium) of their project, and all of those not caught up in their own preparations or performances would form an audience. Events began each day right after breakfast and continued late into the evening. 

One of the events that Tari organized during the Tajima event was a discussion featuring Clive Robertson, who was then the National Spokesperson for the now-defunct ANNPAC/RACA (Association of National Non-Profit Artist-run Centres/Regroupement D’artistes des Centres Alternatifs). Tari had been deeply impressed by the Canadian artist-run network she discovered on her Canadian tour, and she was hoping that hearing about Canada’s artist network might inspire her Japanese colleagues to band together to create something similar in Japan. Much to Tari’s disappointment, the reception to this discussion was somewhat tepid. Rather than embracing the Canadian example as a possible model for artist-driven organizing, the response of those attending seemed to be that Japan should develop its own ways of organizing rather than looking elsewhere for inspiration. This did not deter Tari’s vision of a supportive artist network, however. Over the years she contributed to a number of feminist art groups, first as part of a collective called afa (Asian Feminist Art), and later founding WAN, the Women’s Art Network, followed by PA/F Space (Performance/Feminist Space). 

Despite her soft-spoken demeanour, Tari had a strident spirit of generosity. Not only did she introduce me to many local artists and even help me find other performance opportunities during my three-month stay in Japan; she also invited all of the Canadian artists who were at the Tajima festival to visit her home in Tokyo, where she lived with her parents. This kind of intimacy was unusual in Japan, where the usual protocol was to meet foreigners at a restaurant. The day of the dinner, there was a torrential downpour, and I arrived at her house completely soaked. She was insistent on putting me in her father’s pyjamas (the only clothes in the house loose enough to fit me) while she washed and dried my clothes. I was embarrassed, but grateful for her kindness. 

If Tari’s connection to Canada proved inspirational for her, it is also important to acknowledge that her presence also played a catalytic role in the development of Toronto’s performance art infrastructure. Tari returned to Toronto in 1993 when she was invited to participate in the Mayworks Festival of Working People by then-director Pat Jeffries, whom Tari had met on her earlier Canadian tour. After Mayworks, Tari stayed in Toronto to explore a romantic relationship with Pat, and she also developed friendships with a number of local artists. When it became apparent that Tari would be in Toronto for an extended period of time, Sandy McFadden, who knew Tari from her time living and working in Japan, suggested to me that we should organize an event for Tari. Here was an internationally known Japanese artist, living in our midst, and Toronto should have more of a chance to discover her work. 

This became the impetus for starting FADO. Sandy, Pam, Ed Johnson, Bernice Kaye and I met in my bedroom one summer day and formed an ad hoc collective to plan our first event, a presentation of Tari’s work. Through my involvement with A Space, which had set aside funds that it would hand out to groups organizing art events as part of its community outreach efforts, I was able to secure enough money to pay for the production costs and a modest artist fee for Tari. Tari wanted to do her performance in a large warehouse space at 1400 Dupont Street, which she had become familiar with from visiting the studio of visual artist Aiko Suzuki. Aiko facilitated a meeting with the building manager, and we were able to convince him to allow us to use the large, unfinished central hall—a huge space, 20 by 50 metres—for Tari’s performance. 

At the time, we had no idea of the trajectory FADO would take, how it would eventually transform into a funded artist-run centre for performance art, or how another FADO event initiated by Sandy, an international performance art festival at CinceCycle in 1996 co-sponsored by Le Lieu in Quebec, would inspire the development of the 7a*11d International Festival of Performance Art. Still, this first project, taking advantage of Tari’s presence in Toronto, already laid the groundwork for what would become FADO’s signature production strategy: an ambitious, site-specific event, cobbled together on a shoestring as an act of faith and community-building. Had it not been for Tari, there likely never would have been a FADO. I am profoundly grateful for the auspicious beginning she provided. 

For her Dupont Street performance, Tari created a new work in her Memory of the Epidermis series, called FACE. One section of the performance featured a row of latex smocks hanging from the ceiling at intervals across the length of the space. Tari followed this line, stepping up to each one and draping it onto her torso until she was covered in a thick layering of skins. Another section featured a very large hanging sheet of latex, 4 by 10 metres, that she punctured and penetrated with her arms. Part of the genesis of these images, she told me, was an unlikely Toronto sight that had captured her imagination. She was intrigued by the telephone poles she saw on the street, covered with staples from guerrilla postering. She found these textured layerings fascinating and beautiful, and was struck by the way they gave evidence of a history of piercing, covering, and removal. For her, they were evocative of the rubber skins she created in her work, which carried with them the inverse outlines of the surfaces they had been painted onto. A video recording of both the preparatory process of creating the skins and parts of the live performance uploaded to YouTube is linked to Tari’s artist page on the FADO website. 

Soon after the FACE performance, Tari returned to Japan when her relationship with Pat ended. I wondered what it would be like for Tari returning to Japan, where being a lesbian—or even identifying as a feminist—could be an isolating experience. Tari’s response was to become much more overtly political and activist. In 1996, she “came out” publicly in a performance work called Self-portrait, which was eventually presented in 26 different venues, including Toronto, where she was part of the Rencontre festival organized by Sandy McFadden for FADO at CineCyle. For Tari, this work signalled a profound shift in her understanding of her art practice, which she realized could be used to convey powerful personal and social messages. Alongside her performances and visual art projects, Tari also began to actively develop and promote feminist and lesbian events, networks, and spaces that spanned beyond Japan’s borders to other Asian countries including Korea and Thailand. 

The last direct involvement I had with Tari’s work was in 2002, when Rochelle Holt curated an exhibition of her work at A Space. The opening night performance, Where is the Fear?, was co-sponsored by the 7a*11d International Festival of Performance Art. Where is the Fear? was an openly lesbian performance with elements of audience participation that Tari developed in part as a response to homophobic remarks by then Tokyo Governor Ishihara Shintaro. Tari presented this work in various Japanese venues as well as Toronto, noting in her book Move, “Sexual minorities live in fear of prejudice. Fear lies in the hearts of people who feel frightened of the idea that there are many different kinds of people in the world” (p. 109). 

Tari made several other visits to Canada over the course of her career, including an appearance at Montreal’s Viva! Art Action Festival in 2006 where she presented Rubber Tit. That performance featured a 2.5 metre-tall inflated rubber tit, which I like to think of as the logical progression of Tari’s “blister” from her early A Space performance. One of her final performances—after a four-year break from performing—was at the LIVE Biennale in Vancouver in October 2019, where she presented Before the 37 Trillion Pieces Get to Sleep, a work that Tari developed in response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster. For this work, curated by Makiko Hara for LIVE, Tari appeared in a wheelchair, and was then laid on large pieces of paper while assistants repeatedly traced the outline of her figure. Tari said of this performance, “The body losing its muscles nonetheless continues to live on. For this reason, I want to stay close to the memories of ‘my body and others’ that were forced into silence or forced to be silent.” A moving description of the performance by Katherine Chan, along with photo documentation by Alisha Weng, can be found on LIVE’s website

I had hoped to bring Tari to Toronto as part of the same tour, to present her work in the context of the KinesTHESES series. Tari wanted very much to return to Toronto, but her deteriorating health made including an additional venue impossible. I suggested that we could perhaps find a way for her to develop the performance remotely, using local bodies to stand in for hers, but such an approach did not fit her vision of the project. She understood her own disabled body to be a key element of the work. She told me that if her body had not been so profoundly compromised, working remotely might have offered an interesting challenge, but precisely because, as she wrote in her hesitant but poetic English, “I stare at the body that is stuck,” she felt it was essential for her to work with her own body, doing only what her own skin, bones, and muscles could accomplish in direct relationship with an audience. The closest the project could get to Toronto was when Pam Patterson’s WIA Projects featured a video installation of the work at Gallery 1313’s Window Box Gallery in early 2020, just as the world was beginning to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic. 

I was sad not to have had an opportunity to work with Tari again, but I rejoice in her ongoing legacy—her performances, which moved audiences on several continents; her organizing and networking efforts, which brought together many artists over several decades; her championing of women’s and minority voices; and, of course, her surprising role in Toronto’s performance art development. And so, I would like to share with you Tari’s humble words from Move’s “afterword,” which seem to me very reflective of her spirit: 

“I believe that the joy of performance art comes from wondering what makes a particular artist engage in a certain action with all of their heart and soul. For this reason, it is actually when I am sitting within the audience of a performance art piece—rather than onstage—that I am the happiest” (p. 185). 

Surely, she shared this happiness with others through her own life and career. 

x is for

There is an internal and an external shape to each object, the external shaped by the words it chooses or the words that choose it. The internal shape is difficult to grasp – it is the true shape that insists upon being seen beyond the scaffoldings we build around it. Allowing an object to be an object is one provision of the object’s autonomy. The request of the score provided to X is to be present, to be immersed – the request of this text is to uncover the internal shape, past the scaffolding. Francis Ponge, at the banks of the Loire, made a score, attempting to immerse himself in Mute Objects of Expression: “The object is always more important, more interesting, more capable (full of rights): it has no duty whatsoever toward me, it is I who am obliged to it.”(1) A score like a cut in a surface, allowing the inside to flow out. In order to comprehend the object, consider the score.

1. Focus attempt (First Performer):

The room is full with materials, some clearly connected and some distant and in orbit, but the whole room is an object. In the very centre a mass of brown butcher paper sack like gooseberries moves almost imperceptibly. At the butt of this pleat of matter several pedicels hang, releasing a stream of soft pink sand into the central base of… something. A marionette. A self-governing marionette of multicolored cables, wood, metal hinge, paper and grass mat. This is a spider, or a dog that walks itself. Styrofoam – perhaps once moulded to protect a blender across a long distance – is joined with wood hinging, metal – these are the legs of the marionette. Henceforth called the performer. The legs, which resemble bodies, are bent in profile, bodies ready to… act in some manner. Spider legs, but too tense. The legs of the performer began this score upright like bodies, like bodies bent and viewed in profile, bodies ready to jump, but instead slowly bow as the bags lose sand. Because as the bags lose sand, they rise, tied to the legs gently lowering them to the earth. The gentle hiss noise of sand sounds louder or higher-pitched from each new, higher place.

Suspended and raised by colored nylon, rope, wire, there is white noise or pink noise or grey noise. The sand makes a sibilant sound as its casings rise: more whistle. Six soft legs joined by silver hinge and all salvaged from the salvage yard where they will soon return.

2. Descriptive attempt (Second Performer):

The room is full with materials, some clearly connected and some convoluted in the wake, but the whole room is an object. Somewhere near the centre, a length of bright orange rope, circumnavigated by purple string is suspended amidst an adlittoral landscape. At the tip of one end the rope loops to form a subterminal mouth – at the other, a wattlling tongue. It is a snake, or a hydra… two long tentacles maybe, a chain of cells. Against the walls, more flotsam – crags of white plastic vent orange sand against the floor, the soft pitch creating eddies of white noise or grey noise or blue noise. The two heads of the hydra sketch a finicky directional current, moving toward each other, interpreting a language in vain. They speculate, pause, become sidetracked. The bags haul the wire and rope slowly, the noise is quietly drowned out by the fuzz of the building’s HVAC. The performer submits to the floor against the static pressure of the room.

3. Attempt at reading:

Again, after Ponge: “…verbal analogies are [only] one of the means for studying the object in depth.”  

If you squint, and you will, the jig is up – lost is any semblance of a performer in the room, and only bodies are performing a score, into or against the tropic force of the object.  

This could be a drama or also comedy. Inasmuch as both require causality and both also require cruelty. Drama and comedy both need causality, and both also need incision – a kind of cruelty produced by the dynamics between expectation and uncertainty. 

There is something too about suspension. The advice that Ponge gives to himself, on the banks of the loire, trying to avoid poetry in order to fully comprehend an object, is never try to arrange things. Despite the visibility of the elements, the actions are not predictable. Drama occurs when a series of events unfold with interesting conflicts against unforeseen forces. Comedy occurs when an experience is unpredictable.

4. Attempt at empathy:

An algorithm is a foolproof recipe – an itinerary. X is decidedly not that. The mechanisms that define the narrative of this play are visible, and though investigation may yield a prediction of the finale, is it not about the outcome. What’s insinuated is cumulative, interdependent. 

The score is suggestive, to request the attention given a poem but without the poem’s shape. Spend only the time allotted peering into the poem as it shifts shape, trying to determine its qualities.

x for staying here with us, to immerse ourselves in a moment that is calling itself a performance, in the way that all performances do, by convening a group of people and extracting attention. The score is a text, but the performer is beyond that. The score says, do a phrase without words. Try not to lose any of the moments between the beginning and the end. A paradigm. 

Plural, us, each performer has a memory of the score, and each performer is comprised of other performers, each other performer has memories of previous scores – all noise in harmonic opposition. The legs remember carrying a blender safely across thousands of miles, only to be discarded in a heap of its kin. The rope recalls holding, lifting, binding, being discarded, envisions a future of floating and falling. The string recalls the insides of materials, bags recall holding strings and metals, the sand recalls gravity. Memory is habit, and habit is the antagonist of agency. But while the agency of the performer is perhaps not in question – the agency of the audience is another matter. And so, what is performed is tropism – human bodies, reacting uneasily to presence, to what soft or loud noise flows out through the score.


(1) Ponge, Francis. “Mute Objects of Expression.”

Danielle St-Amour is an artist, writer, and curator based in Toronto, Canada.

Notes on CHARCO Exchange

If one were asked to define the value of art in our contemporary society, you might say that art’s greatest virtue is its ability to communicate across language, culture, and context. But, communicate what? And, who (or what) does the communicating? 

For the artists engaged in an EXCHANGE Live Art “meeting laboratory”, the key ingredient in an experimental recipe for collective creation is communication across languages (spoken, body), cultures (Spanish, African, Tunisian) and contexts (urban, rural, native country, the diaspora and more). Communication is mediated through performance art actions, exercises, and proposals initiated and responded to, looped and fed back, from artist to artist over time and space (before the project actually begins in situ) and in person directly one day and one moment at a time during the working period. Communication is the precursor and the catalyst for collaboration, and collaboration is only made possible (or improbable) between the artists who are working at communicating.

The definition of collaboration is, “the action of working with someone to produce or create something.” Though the word ‘collaboration’ here is a noun, even in this modest state of simply naming, it refuses to be passive. The energy of collaboration is not waiting, or hoping or wishing, it is action. (Though sometimes this action can be or can include waiting, hoping and wishing.) Collaboration is intrinsic to the discipline of performance art where artists and audiences are locked together in a perpetual exchange of doing and witnessing, seeing and being seen. The active investment of both artists and audiences in this exchange is what makes a performance possible, is what makes a work an actual thing. 

The EXCHANGE Live Art project risks failure with each iteration, because it is impossible to predict what will happen or not happen between strangers who have been asked to create something together, to merge working styles, approaches, and most of all, intentions. There is no guarantee of ease or comfort, or even of empathy. The first tendency is to normalize, to try and make it work. But what if it doesn’t? When communication breaks down, does this provide a more rich territory to work from? 

Asked to employ performance art as a strategy for the research of communication across language, culture, and context, the outcome of the project changes each time, with each new pairing. Each group finds their rhythm, pace, and manages to present something functioning as a conclusion. But, what is the conclusion? Is it a picture of a resolved way of working between strangers, now friends? Or is it a reflection of something more messy and undefined? The truth is probably found somewhere in the middle of these two options, hovering between truth and fiction, harmony and conflict, understanding and misunderstanding. Not friends, but no longer strangers either.

For the Disappeared: on Roberto de la Torre’s AYOTZINAPA, busqueda, muerte y renacimiento

On the last day of the festival, November 2, 2014, Roberto de la Torre opened the final set of performances. It is safe to assume that most who gathered that chilly late fall afternoon didn’t know what to expect from de la Torre. Having had the opportunity to speak with him a few days before the festival began, I knew a little about what he was developing and the issue his performance would address, but I did not know how his processes would unfold. Little did I realize just how poignantly de la Torre’s actions would manifest, and how timely they would be.

Roberto de la Torre’s works take shape as negotiations of complex and ephemeral situations, associations, and actions that frequently involve large groups of people. He focuses on social issues that occur in the local context, but his performances also regularly speak to global matters. He can often find intersections that connect the two realms of concern and collapse them into one for a moment in space and time. He is from Mexico City.

For those who have remained unaware, on September 26, 2014, 43 male college students studying to become teachers were abducted in the southern state of Guerrero, Mexico, allegedly by local police at the instruction of a corrupt local Mayor. Taken while on route to nearby Iguala to participate in a protest over the lack of funding for their school Ayotzinapa — an institution with a proud 80 year history of educating Mexico’s political left, with a student body known for their tactical activism — the students identities were shared with the media, but initially other details were scarce. As days turned to weeks inquiry into the whereabouts of the students was framed as a recovery mission hoping to save them from their uncertain circumstances. Then recently, government investigators began to open their findings up to the public. What they have shared has shaken Mexican society. Already grieving, frayed, and beleaguered by over seven years of endemic violence at the hands of organized crime, tens of thousands have taken to the streets to protest.

At present, the understanding is that the students have been murdered, disappeared after being delivered by the corrupt local police to members of a drug gang; their incinerated remains potentially located as a result of arrests and interrogation. The outrage that has swept much of Mexico has become louder as waves of protest and public grief have continued. To write anything further on the unfolding story feels a surreal overstep in this context, and instead I’ve included links to several articles covering the investigation and Mexican citizen’s response over the last week.

NPR: “Confirmation Of Mexican Students’ Deaths Touches Off Protests”
The Guardian: “Protesters set fire to Mexican palace as anger over missing students grows”
CNN World: “Remains could be those of 43 missing Mexican students”
Democracy Now: “‘I’ve Had Enough’: Mexican Protesters Decry Years of Impunity After Apparent Massacre of 43 Students”

This tragedy has been told internationally by media as the investigation into the student’s whereabouts has continued to unfold. A situation so heart-wrenching and bewildering, far away geographically yet so close to home, despite following the story in the press, I confess I initially felt unprepared to address the complex nature of this atrocity in light of de la Torre’s performance. I’ve sat with the experience for seven days now, monitoring the media and pondering how to approach this post. For better or worse, the situation has come to a head. My suggestion here is that the feelings of anguish and dislocation that surround my personal response to this horrible story are intertwined with the artists own. I have arrived at a place where I must admit that there is nothing knowable that can be found to fully address this nonsensical and appalling act. And this is where we must begin.

Photo by Shannon Cochrane, 2014

de la Torre starts his performance slumped against the wall. Surrounded by the large festival crowd, he sits on the edge of an indoor plant box, and is in a state of despondency. His eyes downcast, de la Torre sighs, idly jabs his index finger into the soil, and proceeds to flick it onto the floor. As though conjured, he unearths a spoon.

Armed with this utensil, de la Torre stands. The spoon, an extension of his will to action, is plunged deep into another section of the planter’s soil. Out clatters another tool, a spatula trowel which he picks up to replace the spoon before continuing on. Before long, de la Torre’s exploration of the structures and architecture of the hall reveal a spoon, a trowel, a pair of long forks, and a rake. Pausing at each discovery as if to ponder his next step, de la Torre seems to be playing with the tangibility of his results and how they can be applied. With rake in hand, he heads outside.

de la Torre paces the sidewalk. In a growing state of distress and followed by the crowd, he moves to the lawn and begins to rake leaves aside. Intentional yet hesitant, de la Torre’s actions grow more vigorous as he scrapes and pulls the leaves away from the building. Seeing something, he drops to his knees.

With a plastic bowl now in hand, he moves on. With no apparent destination, de la Torre is not ambling but tracking. He puts his ear to the earth. He listens. This action transfers our awareness of his interests from the objects to the ways they can help him access something underground. We watch as de la Torre moves to the base of a tree and digs with the bowl. He quickly finds a silver ladle. He moves again. This time locating a metal spade, and we begin to see his progress. His tools are developing. They are better than they were before.

Digging beside the fence, he uncovers a shovel. We follow him to a large sandbox in the playground behind the festival building. Fittingly, it is a former school. For the first time we can see that de la Torre has posted the faces of the missing students in the windows of the classrooms. Dragging the shovel he drops to the ground. Lying flat, his ear pressed to the sand, he seems uncertain but he begins to dig. Gathering closely, the crowd circles de la Torre as he shovels wet sand.

He labours for a long time. His breathing grows heavy, and despite the cold, he sweats. Eventually de la Torre slows and for the first time, he speaks — “Fausto!” Calling out to his fellow artist and countryman, Fausto Méndez Luna, de la Torre beckons him to help. Together they uncover a second shovel but nothing more. Speaking quietly in Spanish, they move on. Another hole is dug. A third shovel is uncovered and de la Torre offers it to anyone willing to help. A fourth shovel brings yet another pair of arms. A fifth shovel is revealed and the numbers grow yet again. Eventually there are eight.

Together the group digs and the sand piles up. When they hit gravel at a depth of approximately three feet, de la Torre stops. Guiding this group away from the sand he lines them up shoulder to shoulder. He instructs them to bang their shovels against the concrete ground. As the rhythmic clanging rings out, de la Torre and Méndez Luna step onto the playground. In the dark earth they dig one last time.

Slowly de la Torre begins to pull items of clothing from the ground. Caked with soil, he lays them out, damp and dingy, across the play structures. Running, de la Torre holds a shirt over his head. Dropping to the ground he punches the earth. The sun is growing dim and the windows of the school glow brighter. A window on the top floor opens wide. Arms fling papers out into the sky. Scattering and floating, they fall to the ground. The clanging of the shovels heightens the intensity of this reveal, and the audience gathers to examine what has fallen across the playground. Photos of protests, huge crowds with mouths wide yelling out in dissent and despair, men and women holding vigil and embracing… these are the images of the current state of the Mexican people who have joined together to protest.

de la Torre rises to his feet, and signals. The shovels are silent, and all there is to be heard is the rustle of papers. For the disappeared…

Jenn Snider is currently an MA student at OCAD University, where her research focuses on experimental art administration and exploring organizing as a performative practice. As an artist and curator, her work plays with tensions of collaborative meaning creation. She is a founding member of The Artel artist collective, and the former Director of Modern Fuel Artist-Run Centre.

This article originally appeared on the 2014 7a*11d Festival blog. Re-posted here with permission.

She Was Just Like You
Francesca Fini, I was there, 7a*11d, 2014. PHOTO Henry Chan

Francesca Fini’s performance space is a theatrical set. Her props and environment impeccably arranged, dramatically lit. Red, white and pink are the scene’s characteristic colours. There is a bandaged white face on a table, a red suspended platform dripping a red popsicle over a fishbowl, an apron riddled with Eva Hesse-like protrusions. Fini monitors us as we enter. Although her hands are cuffed, her presence is commanding.

“They say cold preserves beauty,” Fini tells us, as she massages her face, neck and chest against an ice-replica of a face. She smashes it on the floor almost immediately. Inside the block of ice is the weight for a metronome, which she sets ticking. It cues a video composed of spliced 60s ad footage, top a livestream from a smartphone which looks down from the suspended platform. When Fini begins her frenzied licking of the popsicle suspended below the camera, her desperate and furious sucking motions and the bobbing of her tits in her pink party dress are streamed behind the distorted rhythmic clips (and, I later learn, broadcast online).

Inside the popsicle are keys to her cuffs. The progression unfolds. Slowly but surely, the tools of Fini’s performance become available to her.

Cue another projection: a red-lipped face on the white-bandaged head in the centre of the table, intoning a story as the clips behind play. A young girl (named Marley). Just like you. Dreaming of a fairy prince. He’s rich. They run away together. Big white horses with silver bridles. Elves (maybe owls?) carry her wedding train. The story repeats, distorts. She marries a big white horse. She wants to grow up to be a fairy prince. There was a big white girl. The words take on an eeriness, play backwards, get garbled.

Fini cuts into the top of the head, which is a cake. Shovels some mouthfuls. The projection becomes frenetic behind her. As she serves the cake to a few guests, she asks a series of questions: do you like it? do you like me? do you love me? do you want to marry me?

She downs milk with her cake, acquires a wedding ring at the bottom. she writes love in popsicle-melt and cake-goo on the series of protruding tampons (of course they’re tampons!) which adorn the apron. Putting it on, she flicks on a series of fairy lights. She stands in front, asks us to put on our 3-D goggles and watch as the haze of ad-clips, the fairy-tale story, and new animations of microbes, fish, and monsters grow to populate the film-decoupage, descending into a bitter discord.

Francesca Fini, I was there 7a*11d 2014 PHOTO Henry Chan

At a basic level, I wrestle with the relevance of work like this—work which relies on the visual conventions of second wave feminism and on media images from the 1950s and 60s. This critique of a vintage lexicon of visual images can lack urgency and currency for me, drifting into the nostalgic territory and becoming the stuff of rockabilly culture and Mad Men-themed dinner parties. These images of housewives, little girls who dream of marrying rich, of tampons, party dresses, blenders, hair curlers, tinned food… none of them reveal. Rather than point to a way of re-imagining women’s contemporary roles, Fini’s video shows us a swirling hallucinatory pile of images we already know to be oppressive.

For Fini, this is entirely the point. Vintage pinups and the language of the second wave persist in contemporary consciousness. Whether or not we are bored with them (and whether or not we care to see them), they maintain a steady march through our collective white-bread history. Unlike before, though, they now operate at a level which straddles repulsion, nostalgia, camp, desire, homage, and politics.

Alison Cooley is a writer, curator, and educator based in Toronto. Her work deals with the intersection of natural history and visual culture, socially engaged artistic practice, craft histories, and experiential modes of art criticism. She is the 2014 co-recipient of the Middlebrook Prize for Young Curators, and her critical writing has recently appeared in FUSE, Canadian Art, and KAPSULA. She is also the host and producer of What It Looks Like, a podcast about art in Canada.

This article originally appeared on the 2014 7a*11d Festival blog. It is re-posted here with permission of the author.

NON GRATA | SMASHING!!! Hard Hitting Fists!!!
Photo credit: Dean Goodwin

SMASHING!!!! was a two part event created by Toronto based media and performance artist Istvan Kantor who brought the internationally renowned group Non Grata from Estonia via New York to Canada to perform in Toronto (they performed in Montréal in 2006).

Istvan Kantor aka Monty Cantsin Amen, a member of the Non Grata nomad-network group, collaborated in leading the car smash that took place at 3pm in the empty lot beside Kantor’s studio on Sterling Road. Dirt and sand in small tornadoes flew around the car as people arrived. Improvised audio was beaten out against the chilling desert atmosphere by Istvan. The audience came ready to participate in the final killing of the bright red vehicule condemned to be smashed.

Taje, Non Grata’s founder member with Al Paldrok, started on the roof in bare legs, bare feet, a burning torch and fire starter. She was the anarchist statue of liberty, a symbol for a generation of artists living in an era of global warming, in a city where cyclists are run down by vehicles regularly, in a part of the world where artists have been confronting the car in their work for the past two decades. The car is a highly charged symbol to attack. It was sprayed and smashed with axes, sledge hammers, sticks, flipped over and punctured. I took an axe and chopped away at the trunk. Throwing the axe to the ground for the next person to pick up, I stumbled away feeling that I had just jumped out of a cold lake.

Later in Istvan’s studio I said to Paldrok “That was fun.” “Fun has nothing to do with it!” he demanded, smiling behind his grizzly adam’s beard “It’s all about scratching the surface as strong and as deep as possible!”. I agreed with him, “that’s right, fun has nothing to do with it.”

The Theatre Centre Pop Up space starts to fill around 8pm. A different audience arrived with an expectation for a performance that stretches beyond the parameters of what is safe. The Non Grata performance group has a reputation for making such experiences and the participating Toronto artists responded to this anticipation with high energy.

Two very intense and confronting short videos by Istvan Kantor were followed by Jessica Patricia Kichoncho Karuhanga’s solo piece. Performing with three cd players, Jessica physically moved between three different songs playing simultaneously, spontaneously stopping to bang her head against the wall. The sound was received by a contact microphone, looped and amplified, creating genuine head banging audio.

253469 core members Wesley Rickert and Kathleen Reichelt performed for the first time as Burning Iceberg. A video made specific for the event was projected and the artists performed a 30 minute audio piece, an epic-sermon, based in concepts of performance art, poetry, raw noise and the inability to repeat any experience. Wesley’s hard core guitar beat-noise and Kathleen’s hits on the keyboard and on an accordeon characterized the duo’s skeleton-music style.

Non Grata delivered an intensely unnerving experience. The audience did not know how far the performers were going to go as the cast iron brand heated up in the fire at the centre of the audience. A Non Grata member, Amber Lee from Chicago, who traveled with Taja and Al from New York to Toronto for this occasion, was branded with an “S” shape and the smell of burning flesh filled the space. Marked with the moment of experience, recording the event on her body, the audience witnessed a mark of living permanence.

Istvan Kantor made a fist and smashed it for an intimate and unforgettable experience.

Photo credit: Dean Goodwin
Second Performance: Andrea Saemann

On the far wall of the gallery is an arrangement of blank, white pieces of paper, of varying sizes, attached to the wall with squares of green tape, a chair next to a white plinth, an overhead projector, and a table with collapsible legs, up-ended and leaning, like a tall picture frame. 

Saemann enters the space and the audience grows quiet. Saemann is at the back of the room, painting on a long, blank strip of brown hand towel from the public washroom, hanging on the wall by a square of green tape. She is painting with water; the water appears light brown on the oatmeal paper. She is wearing those Aussie ankle boots, beige pants, and a white sleeveless hooded shirt. She paints vertically onto the paper the word: VERENA. She moves to the opposite side of the room and paints on another long strip of paper, taped to the wall, the word: MONIKA.

Saemann announces that this is the WARC gallery and it stands for Women’s Art Resource Centre. “I don’t work alone and the work I’m doing happens between Verena and Monika. I start with Verena and finish with Monika and, in between, it is always me.”

On the floor are two rectangular pieces of plywood with Velcro straps. Saemann attaches these to her feet, like wooden snow shoes, and begins to walk, lining the boards up to measure her steps. She’s at the edge of the audience, her line of progress forces people to move. She takes three steps, then lifts and crosses one foot over the other and makes a ninety degree turn, again lining up the boards to make sure her corner is correct. She bends and traces the outline of her corner on the floor with a blue piece of chalk. She continues to make the shape of a rectangle on the floor, lining up her shoe-boards with every step, marking off the corners. She makes this pattern five times, the corner markings shifting slightly with every repetition, imperfect. She moves slowly, the boards seem heavy, cumbersome; her progress is methodical. Even lining up the boards as well as she does, there is human error and a shifting of the perimeter. The sound is organic; the noise of the wooden boards on the wooden floor is peaceful, the sound of a person alone in a house, cleaning out drawers, or a janitor rearranging the wooden pews after a church meeting and the congregation has left. The fifth time around, Saemann gets a bit wobbly. Tired, I suppose, from her heavy shoes.

Saemann makes her sixth trip around, then pulls the Velcro off and props one board up against her plinth. She takes a sip of water, then turns on her overhead projector. It shines a bright square of light against the wall, containing a cross-section of the table, its shadow slanted in the light.

Saemann stands next to the up-ended table and begins to tell a story about a dream. As she speaks, she uses a small wooden stick to illustrate her story on the table top, which has been covered with a thin layer of grey clay, smoothed out to look like a flat surface. The texture of the marks in the clay – the effect of her materials – is primitive, organic. It evokes drawings in the sand, cave paintings. Her story, too, is dream-like, primitive, mythical, archetypal.

“We are in a boat,” Saemann says, “rather a ship, on the river Rhine. The ship is on its way and I know it’s time to say farewell to the inmates, because they are getting retired, and it’s the last time I am going to see them.”

She tells a story about being trapped on this boat (she draws a bird’s eye view of the front end of a boat) and jumping ship and swimming to shore and getting away. She wants the inmates to know they can follow her, but it becomes treacherous, the bank is mossy, slippery and steep. She walks on and the ridge is high and at the top of the ridge is a bench and on the bench is an elderly lady, sitting. She climbs up and is so thankful that the bench is there for her to sit on. It is a church bench and there is a church service going on, but inside the church it’s more like a cave, without a roof.

“And I’m so thankful for these benches because of all my sadness of saying goodbye to these inmates on the ship, and I could just sit and breath. And I felt the water rise up out of my body and my eyes, and I would cry.” Where her story ends, Saemann leaves the stick she’s been drawing with, in the clay.

Now she pivots the overhead projector to shine on the pieces of paper taped to the far wall. She peels the tab of green tape off the top of one page, flips the page down to reveal a picture on the other side, then tapes it back to the wall. On the backs of all the pages are colour photographs of paintings on the walls of another gallery somewhere else: yellow, teal, green, red, pink – beautiful abstract shapes. Saemann returns to the overhead projector and places an acetate on the surface with the outline and shape of a deer, drawn in black dots. This image is projected at the plinth and the wall.

Saemann goes and sits on the plinth with her back to the audience. The deer is projected onto her back. She puts on her white hood and lifts the board she used earlier as a kind of snowshoe, and wraps the Velcro strap around her head, so the board hangs vertically against the back of her head, also reflecting the image of the deer, mainly its head. So now Saemann sits, transformed into a deer, looking at the display of photographic images taped to the far wall.

Saemann sits with her back to the audience, reflecting the deer, and begins to make a noise like a shushing, a stuttering attempt to articulate, to make language, an effort to communicate from a place that is perhaps pre-lingual, all intuitive, animal-like. She sounds like someone who is either disabled, or in a shamanic state, trance-like, groaning out of sound to form new words, never previously uttered: water is one.

It’s as if she is speaking for the first time, in the slow first dawn of language, as an animal might speak to you, in a dream, or a fairy tale. Gradually a description evolves. Saemann stutters: “She, she, she makes this blue, this dark blue. Then a lighter blu bla ble ble ble, then a bit lighter blue, then a black, and a light blue.” 

Saemann struggles her way through a description of what she sees, staring – as the transmogrified deer – at the photographs on the wall. “Then she takes that glossy paper, she makes folds in that glossy paper, light blue, blue paper, and puts that on top, and dar, dar, dar, dark… And then comes that rose, I always thought that when there was pink that I should bring it to Monika, because it belongs to her, but then I rose. I like pink. I myself like pink, and then goes with her finger in that pink.” It’s as if a deer has wandered to the window of Monika’s studio and fallen in love with her, watching her work, produce this strange thing called art, and is attempting to pay homage in a language that is foreign. This process of paying homage is intrinsic to Saemann’s work, who admits to working exclusively in relation to other artists, in a continuum, reacting to and re-enacting their work, mimicking them, never working as if in a vacuum, without overtly acknowledging her influences. Art, Saemann believes is never a solo statement – even in the largely solo world of performance art – but rather a dialogue and a conversation, a reaction to everything preceding and surrounding the solitary artist.

“Then with a pen she makes lines, blue lines, one line after another line, horizontal line, blue pen, longer lines, shorter lines, shush, suddenly make vertical lines, with blue pen, lines on, and then black.” After a while, Saemann gets off the plinth, take the board off her head and says, “Thank you” – her performance complete. Lingering in the air is the sense of some strange, shamanic rite, or ritual, something dream-like, ancient, and close to magic; when animals spoke; when art was experienced from the perspective of the totally innocent – as only lines and markings and colour.

In her artist talk the following day, Saemann says that it wasn’t until she was forty years old that she realized she was a performance artist. She is interested in questions like, “When does performance art stop for women when they grow old? When they are no longer beautiful? How much of it has to do with the body?” She made a list of performance artists whose work she felt she should be familiar with, but actually knew very little about, including: Carolee Schneemann, Alison Knowles, Joan Jonas, Martha Rosler  and others.

Saemann set a project for herself to meet these artists, interview them, and then plan a festival where she could invite the artists to perform, and then use their work in her own work, as a mirror, a mimic.

Over the course of this project, she interviewed Carolee Schneemann about her performance piece, Interior Scroll. A piece “where [the artist] pulls what’s inside outside” by way of pulling a scrolled text out of her vagina – an iconic performance image Saemann had seen in a book but wasn’t that drawn to, or curious about. It was only after learning about the artist – in her interviewing process – that Saemann’s understanding of the performance represented in the image grew; and she wanted to further understand the work through re-enacting the performance. (Upon hearing the news that Saemann had re-enacted her piece, Schneemann was initially upset, but also grew accepting of it once she’d heard Saemann’s own reasoning for and ideology behind the re-enactment.)

Talking to Schneemann, Saemann realized that Interior Scroll was far more language-based than she’d previously assumed (the interior scroll is actually a dialogue the artist has with a structuralist filmmaker who doesn’t take her work seriously, saying that at best she is, as a performance artist, a mere “dancer”); it is much more than simply a visceral (or political, or transgressive) action of the female body. “It is so much harder to bring words across,” Saemann says in her talk, “than images.” And yet, through her investigation of the piece, it was the words that came across to her as the more powerful aspect of what is an already powerful image, but one that could possibly be dismissed as merely provocative. 

Saemann’s re-enactments are a tribute, but also a challenge, a mirror. Saemann likes the word re-enact, but is it even possible? How can you re-enact someone’s performance? You can only imitate it. Interior Scroll was Saemann’s only attempt at a literal re-enactment – all the other performances have been interactions, using other artists’ work as a jumping-off place, as an influence, something to respond to.

Talking about her performance from the night before, she describes how engrained it is in her now to react to other artists; and that these two artists (Monika and Verena) had invited her to do a performance in the space of their group exhibition. Saemann was so energized by it that last night’s performance was an attempt to bring it to an audience not familiar with their work, and unaware of what her own work would be referring to, paralleling, or in conversation with.

Often the material Saemann is working from, in her own re-enactment performance pieces, is photograph evidence. She feels the need to elaborate, or respond to, or begin a dialogue with photographic evidence from other performances because the photograph – for her – is not enough; but then all that is left of her own performances is a photograph. In a sense, that is all we have to keep from live performance. Live is magic, precisely because it is lost as soon as it’s over. That’s what makes her work so eerie – it is an homage to an invisibility: a re-creation of something that is un-recreatable. Her process seems to reinforce the power of the photographic image – and yet relies on the live performance. Saemann reinforces the link between the two by showing how they are locked in a relationship of reciprocally disappearing origin.

What is the purpose of these performances? What is she stating politically with these imitations, these transient attempts at preservation? Saemann seems to be stating that authorship is not clear; her interest in myth is its lack of authorship. Who wrote the myths? Authorship in myth doesn’t exist. Similarly, imitation is shaking up the notion of authorship. Her responsiveness, her dialogue with other works, is her content.

Her performances, like stories, often contain a middle, beginning and an end. When asked why she doesn’t let these moments exist as performances in their own right, she says, “I want a circle around the centre, I don’t want to be the centre.” She doesn’t want the possibly erroneous certainty of singular authorship. She realizes the hubris of posing as an author who lives and creates alone. For Saemann performance art is a history, a continuum; it is not a blank space.

Christine Pountney lives and works in Toronto and has published two novels, Last Chance Texaco and The best way you know how (Faber & Faber). Her third, Sweet Jesus, came out in September with McClelland and Stuart. She is currently exploring the world of children’s stories and will soon begin a serialization of Madeline stories on her forthcoming website.

First Performance: Claudia Bucher

Claudia Bucher is interested in making clean things dirty, the gradual transformation and the final, vivid chiaroscuro that arises when you take what is clean, almost sterile – a white sheet, a white dress – and introduce nature – mud, berries, black ink. Her work is thought-provoking and yet aesthetically pleasing; very female in its complement between beauty and decay.

In the courtyard of the 401 Richmond Street building, there is a white sheet on the wet, freshly rained-on paving stones. At the front end of the sheet is a large nearly perfectly round glass bowl, two-thirds full of water. People have gathered around the sheet and sit on the few benches available, some stand, and some are seated on the fire-escape staircase overlooking the courtyard. Bucher comes out dressed in white, wearing raspberry lipstick, and her hair in a loose braided bun. Her eyes are green; she is wearing white leggings and her feet are bare. In her right hand she holds a bottle full of some dark liquid; in her other hand, a white cloth bag, like a pillow case, containing something bulky.

Photo credit: Henry Chan

Bucher puts down these objects, kneels in front of the bowl and fits her head inside and starts to blow bubbles. The futfutfut of the water becomes laboured and her breathing gets heavier, mist fogging up the glass. There is a sense of difficulty, the sound evokes a flushing toilet. Her body heaves as if she’s gagging, or about to vomit. Several images come to mind involving duress and water, forced submersion, a kind of torture – waterboarding.

Photo credit: Henry Chan

The exposure of the artist in a posture of obvious discomfort strikes me as feminist. It is part of the experience of the lived female body that almost, by necessity, needs to be brought to our attention and witnessed by the audience. Bucher sinks her head further into the water and holds her breath for a very long time. It makes me uncomfortable, I begin to feel nervous for her. She chokes back two spasms of wanting to breath. I am reminded of a story of nuns punishing girls in an orphanage by holding their heads down in a bucket of water. Suddenly, her head lurches up. Bucher stares at the water, surprisingly calm. She sits back on her knees; the water dripping down her face makes her look sad. She is passive, resigned, accepting – but still defiantly in control. This, too, feels like a feminist gesture.

Bucher opens her dark glass bottle and pours some black ink into the clear water. It spreads like purple cloud formations, unfurls like a cloth at the bottom of the bowl. She holds the bottle of ink very still above the bowl, lets it drip slowly, then pours the rest of it in.

Photo credit: Henry Chan

Bucher opens her white bag and takes out a hanger, a pairing knife with a black handle, and two long lengths of clear plastic tubing, the kind used in a hospital, or a lab. She props one end of the tubing against the inside edge of her bowl, an inch below the surface of the inky water. She takes off her white dress and puts it on a wooden hanger, then hangs it from the branch of a tree in the courtyard. The dress looks clean, doll-like, pretty against the wet green leaves. Bucher takes the free end of the other tube and threads it into the ankle and up the inside of her left legging, pulling the tube out at the waist and pushing it down her other leg in a looped way to create the impression of veins. She winds the tube up the inside front of her tight, white tank top, out the top, and puts the end in her mouth.

She has two lengths of clear tubing, which she attaches with a length of orange piping that has a small hand pump at the centre, similar to the pump used by a doctor to tighten a blood pressure sleeve. Bucher stands staring out at the audience and begins to squeeze the small orange pump until the inky water starts to travel, snake-like, smooth and black, through the clear tube. It travels in coils across the floor, over the white sheet.

Photo credit: Henry Chan

As the ink travels up from the floor to pass through the orange pump that Bucher is squeezing rhythmically in her hand, there seems to be a faulty connection. Air gets in, divides the black line of ink, separates it with air bubbles. The dark line as it travels back down towards the floor to slip under her white clothes and travel up her leg is stalled, broken and uneven. Talking to Bucher afterwards, she admits to enjoying the unforeseeable details, obstacles and events that emerge during live performance. This small failure of equipment introduces a tension. It staggers the sequence, time slows, the audience feels the subtle shift in the air – the suspense of what will happen next.

The journey the ink now has to make to arrive at her mouth is laborious. This, too, takes on a particular significance. Is it a metaphor for all things medical, having to do with the body, especially the female body? Childbirth, abortions, hysteria, PMS, depression – so many wild stabs and invasive techniques foisted on the female body. So many failed attempts. And of art and expression, of drawing and writing, how often is the circuit to free communication blocked or thwarted? And where does the impulse to make art come from? Does it come from our blood? Our bodies?

There isn’t enough pressure to move the ink up her leg. Bucher is sucking on the tube, trying to get the ink to travel up to her mouth. A few small bubbles make it, but eventually she puts the hand pump on the ground and uses her foot to pump it more energetically. The ink starts to move again, shoots through her clothes, up and across her stomach and into her mouth. Her cheeks puff out, she gags. Is she swallowing? It’s hard to tell. After a while the ink spurts and dribbles out of her mouth and onto her shirt, staining it a dark grey, the purple of eggplant, or plum. Around the edges, a dirty yellow, like a bruise. She seems to be choking, her breath noisy and heavy through her nose. It’s still hard to tell whether she’s drinking or spitting the ink out. There is suffering, or the performance of suffering. For a long time the inky stain on her lower belly is the same shape as a uterus – another happy, unforeseeable coincidence.

Photo credit: Henry Chan

Halfway down her leg, a pool of ink collects in a curve of tubing. Her crotch too is leaking ink, like menstrual blood with the dark, ominous potential to write or draw. The water level has hardly gone down in the bowl. The process feels interminable, arduous. The action begins to take on an aspect of the grotesque, again a kind of torture. The artist’s arms are trembling from the discomfort, the ordeal of it all. The whole front of her shirt is dark purple now, her chest is splattered and her arms. Ink runs down her legs and onto her feet.

The tube eventually empties out, the other end lying just above the water level now. Bucher stands there breathing heavily, looking out at the audience directly, recovering from the invasion of her mouth, and we feel the calm and recovery. And now comes the outrage. She takes the knife and opens her clothing roughly and slits the tubing and pulls it out – a rejection of methodology. From her belly, her inner thighs, the equipment and technology is wrenched out with relief and exuberance. When she is freed of the discomfort, the coldness of the liquid, the discomfort of the performance, there is an atmosphere of rebellious un-encumbrance, and a tangible impression of renewed strength. Bucher leaves, walks over to the fire escape stairs and climbs it to the top floor of the building and disappears in through a window. The white sheet on the ground is splattered with ink. Her white dress, bright in a spotlight, hangs pristine and innocent from a tree. The audience takes a moment before applauding.

Photo credit: Henry Chan

Bucher’s performance is about the body, about the plasticity, in particular, of women’s bodies, the invasion and manipulation of them, and all the technology surrounding our expressions of mind and body – and how disfiguring and painful all this intervention can be, and how often it is concealed beneath the skin or clothing, until it becomes so unbearable it must be torn out with forcible puncturing; and how all this violence stands in contrast to the white, un-violated purity of the dress, hanging from that perfect symbol of nature: a tree.

That Bucher uses black ink, as opposed to red, allows for the obvious reference to veins, but also a secondary reference to art, to writing and drawing; of making art, female art, and at what cost, and with what censure; and how the mouth is the locus of repression, and how the mouth can be silenced when it is crammed full of other people’s inky words and art and technology.

What’s left is the cut tubing, the orange hand pump, the empty glass bottle that had contained the ink (now a transparent purple), an empty white cloth bag, the knife on the white sheet, the stained sheet like a shroud. How much of women’s experience does this describe?

On the wall inside, as I walk down the corridor to witness the next performance, I notice a quote from Marcus Aurelius: “Things stand outside our doors, themselves by themselves, neither knowing nor reporting anything about themselves.” There is something of the unexplained in performance art which allows it to resonate long after it has been witnessed; it is able to capture the imagination and linger in our feeling sense to the very degree that it defies articulation.

At her artist talk the following day, Claudia Bucher explains her relationship to materials. She has worked with mud, berries, charcoal and sugar – creating, with all of these, images that are unpredictable, but also very beautiful. She has twirled like a ballerina with a tutu made of five pounds bags of white sugar, punctured and spewing their white powder in a circle around her. She had collected slime from a lake and dragged it on a white sheet like a royal bride down a palatial corridor. She has done laundry in a bucket of berries, transforming the white clothes into purple clothes and hanging them on a line.

If you were there, she says, you could smell the berries. They smelled very sweet. Of working with sugar, she said, “I could explore it outside me, inside me, it was disgusting to get too much, but I like how white it is, white and clean.” She admits being interested in “the moment when something beautiful, clean and white, happens into something opposite.”

She has performed with charcoal on white paper, dressed in white, following along to a Jane Fonda workout video, holding the charcoal in her hands and enacting against the wall all the movements of the aerobics workout, until a vivid and totally energetic drawing rises up behind her, like the wings of an angel, and she herself is smeared in sweat and black dust.

Bucher came to performance and installation work via sculpture. She became interested in the relationship between sculptural objects and their surroundings; and feels herself to be a sculpture in her own installations. The connection in the Jane Fonda piece between her white clothes, the charcoal, and the wall all grow together. She likes to leave the evidence, like a sculptural object, of where she’s been at the end of a performance piece. The main point for her, however, is the process. “The work is doing it,” Bucher says, “that’s the actual work. It’s not the object you end up with.” However, she did sell the final drawing from one of her Jane Fonda performances. She was happy to do this – it was a novelty, a happy unforeseeable outcome.

Working in this spontaneous way, Bucher says, “often unplanned things happen when you use volatile material, mud or cloth. The cloth rips, slime spills out.” In her piece where she dragged lake slime across the floor, the cloth ripped and she was able to stop and pile the mud on her head like a crown, or a wig. She uses these unforeseeable moments to enrich the performance.

Bucher likes to set up part of her performances, and allow for part of them to be outside her control. The challenge she looks forward to is finding out how the material will talk to her. “Material will do that, and it can help me to know how to work with it. When it is so clearly planned or predictable,” Bucher says, “it can be harder for me to be with it.”

For this reason, it is easier for her to change a performance, or make new works to make the performance more exciting, than it is to repeat them. “It is a way to avoid,” she says, “the disappointment of the happy accidents that make a performance not repeating themselves.” This insistence on originality makes Bucher’s work unpredictable and exciting; and her flare for juxtaposition, and her attraction to visceral materials, makes her work both challenging and aesthetically impressive.

Christine Pountney lives and works in Toronto and has published two novels, Last Chance Texaco and The best way you know how (Faber & Faber). Her third, Sweet Jesus, came out in September with McClelland and Stuart. She is currently exploring the world of children’s stories and will soon begin a serialization of Madeline stories on her forthcoming website.

Imagined Spaces, Lost Objects

In April 2011, Imagined Spaces, Lost Objects brought together four women hailing from Berlin, Calgary, Saskatoon, and Ottawa to present recent works at Cinecycle in Toronto. This disparate group of artists with a diverse range of creative practices had individually crossed my path at various key moments within the previous year. Although performance is not necessarily the foundation for each of the artist’s individual work, I observed undeniably performative aspects inherent in each of their practices, even in those not coming from a time-based background.

In putting together this program, I followed an intuitive process, with a desire to collaborate with these four artists whose practices resonated deeply within me, embodying the performative from several perspectives:

Between the timeless and the transitory, between dream and reality, fact and fantasy, there emerges a potent junction. This intersection, a “no-man’s land,” straddles temporal veracity and produces a space difficult to pin down. In this imagined space, a series of self-consciously constructed identities come to embody an invested trace – of lost love, lost words, of lost or stolen objects. Lost and yet, the trace of what remains sticks in the memory, and to the body. And in this “no-man’s land” we find four women – charting four distinct paths on land in-between multiply defined worlds.

What are the ways in which each of these artists creates work that challenges their own sense of a self-constructed identity? The self vis-à-vis personal myth-making, and the myths that we confront in order to help us to break through to another level of awareness, of compassion and of consciousness – about who we are and about the world around us. 

Julianna Barabas, 2011. Photo credit: Henry Chan

Juliana Barbaras: Antidote

The evening began with Julianna’s relational, one-on-one performance, Antidote. At the front of the room Julianna sat in a chair with a plank of wood across her lap facing an empty chair. A bowl of warm water rested on the wooden plank and beside her sat a pile of soft white towels. As the audience milled around and socialized, waiting for the event to start, Julianna patiently waited in a relaxed yet focused manner. Slowly one person at a time took their turn and sat across from her.

My encounter with Antidote was like that of a warm blanket, a softness that surrounds you. The blanket doesn’t ask: “Can I warm you?” – it simply does. As I sat having my hands tenderly washed with warm soapy water then gently massaged (this being the core of the action), I viscerally understood that this was a performance about compassion in its most transparent and available form, offered by a grounded and conscientious individual with an ability to listen to what is not necessarily being directly said. Julianna’s unique capacity for empathy allowed her to be fully present to each and every person sitting across from her. 

Julianna has presented this work previously in performance contexts that were private, unlike this version, which was presented in front of a seated audience in the space that would soon become the stage for the rest of the evening. This created a whole other kind of dynamic where Julianna was on display and meeting intimately with one person at a time. Her actions were witnessed both by the participant and the assembling audience producing the feeling of a space within a space. It also generated an echo of empathy that unwittingly set the tone for the remainder of the event.

Amalie Atkins, 2011. Photo credit: Henry Chan

Amalie Atkins: Three Minute Miracle: Tracking the Wolf

Two performers entered the space wearing red dresses and matching shoes. They walked down the middle aisle in serene unison, separating to take up residence at their respective stations. Amalie Atkins took her seat on a stationary bicycle (sitting slightly behind the audience in the middle of the space) while Tanjalee Kuhl veered off to the side to take her place behind a keyboard. As Tanjalee began to play, Amalie began to pedal. Magically, a film appeared on the screen, brought to life by Amalie’s bicycle powered projector. Carried along by Tanjalee’s live soundtrack, Three Minute Miracle: Tracking the Wolf is a fanstasmatic journey of loss and discovery involving human-animal forms, snowshoes and a giant white frosted cake. In the darkened space of Cinecycle – a bike repair shop and a micro-cinema in one – this performance was uncannily fitting and quite mesmerizing, and created an atmosphere akin to the wondrous world appearing on the screen.

Captivated by the images it came as a delightful surprise when rather unexpectedly incidental sounds in the film (for example, birds chirping in a tree) were heard coming from the audience seated in the back row. When the main character of the film, The Wolf, began to lead a choir of animal-people in song, suddenly this entire row of audience members stood up, instantly forming the live choir, and launched into a rousing and somewhat psychedelic song about losing teeth. Suddenly Amalie stopped cycling and the film came to an abrupt pause. The lights came up and a third performer entered the space. It was The Wolf, holding a white cake plate trimmed in pink frosting. There was an Alice in Wonderland dream-like three-dimensional feeling to the appearance of this doppelganger. Removing the lid and exposing a small mound of golden teeth, The Wolf handed the platter to Amalie who proceeded to distribute the perfectly sculpted gleaming (and edible!) molars to the audience. An oddly cannibalistic gesture ensued when we started to hear (and feel) the crunch of teeth – between our own teeth.

Once the plate was emptied, Amalie moved back to her helm at the bicycle projector and revved up the motor again. The lights dimmed, the image returned and the choir, both on-screen and in-person, sang us to the conclusion of the teeth dilemma, in a shimmering vocal crescendo. 

The various audio components of Amalie’s performance played an important role in the audience’s layered experience of the work, from the melancholic melody of the keyboard to the voices of the “spontaneous” choir, punctuated by the repetitive sounds of the bicycle and the projector itself; a series of constant clickings and whirrings functioning as the heartbeat of the performance. 

The combined doubling of live and mediated images created by the live presence of the filmmaker, characters and sound from the film created a prolonged liminal space – like being inside a living dream. The effect of this slippery state was hallucinatory – a sustained uncanny experience in which a successive joining and separating of the rational and the irrational produced an undeniably irresistible destabilized present.

Laura Margita, 2011. Photo credit: Henry Chan

Laura Margita: Madame Blanche Serves Hors d’oeuvres from the Underworld

The sensation of a destabilized present continued with the next performance. In a cream-coloured peasant dress and sparkling vest, Laura Margita coyly took to the stage. Behind her a video image appeared: Laura in décolleté camisole with her face in shadow. Reminiscent of popular cop shows or courtroom dramas where the witness’s identity is protected, Laura began telling a tale and we quickly understood the reason for concealment. Laura was protecting herself from herself. We all listened (the “real-life” Laura included) as she told us the story of a disastrous failure of a performance that she would rather have completely forgotten. 

The image changed to Laura sitting by a campfire, lit only by the flames, reading aloud some selections of her own poetry. As she finished each poem, she placed the sheets in the fire to watch them sizzle and burn up purging unnecessary remnants from her “sordid” past. 

Laura’s performance was an exercise in peeling away layers of carapace – literally demonstrated when the artist took off her peasant dress to reveal a skin-toned bodice underneath. Ornamented with a low-slung belt and holster (a kind of shamanistic, protective shield), Laura moved through the audience, giving even more details of her performance failure, a work entitled Madame Blanche Hears Your Confessions. During this segment, she approached random audience members to offer them a strawberry to eat – delivered directly into their mouths on a plastic spoon attached to a toy car, hurdling down a foot long piece of plastic racecar track.

In between the campfire poetry readings, and Laura’s on-stage free-flowing recitation, one singular image from the past performance in question flashed on the screen. This image was the only document of the work left and its content attested to her still palpable mortification: an exceedingly intoxicated Laura being dragged away from the performance space by two friends.

Why re-visit such a painful past, and so publicly?

Laura created a work that intentionally wished to dig up a dark and dirty secret. Confronting her past with the audience as witness, she indirectly asked how we can muster compassion toward ourselves. In re-visiting this past, she opened up the space for another reading, not just a gratuitous spectacle of self-exploitation but an opportunity to demonstrate forgiveness for herself. Making vulnerability the key ingredient, the excruciation factor was extremely high: we felt for Laura, we cringed for Laura, and then we rejoiced for Laura, for her erroneous past and her questioning present – a moment of 20/20 hindsight in which her public disclosure affirmed a great deal of clarity.

Laura’s performance was intensely compelling in its poignancy, its lack of pretension and its honesty. She managed to ride a very fine edge between being in control, and being totally out of control. Keeping the audience on this dangerous precipice between art and life (what part is the art and which part is the life?) we were never quite sure whether she was actually performing or just being Laura. This contributed to an ongoing discomfort, extreme embarrassment – and simultaneous joy – that underlined her work, and our experience of the performance. An immediate intimacy was installed, and Laura made us feel completely at home in her orbit, even as the world around us became somewhat unbalanced. In searching for her equilibrium, we shared her journey of re-visiting her past in order to better understand the present.

Janine Eisenaecher, 2011. Photo credit: Henry Chan

Janine Eisenaecher: Eat Your Enemy #3, I am the Coca Cola of Art

Janine Eisenaecher presented another kind of purging ritual in which the demons of corporate culture, and two of its perceived representatives – Marina Abramovic and Coca Cola – were held up for display and (gentle) disparagement. This forged complicity came directly from a quote by the famous performance artist in question, in which she stated: “I am a brand like Coca Cola. I am the Coca Cola of Art.” This and other problematic things Abramovic has said got Janine thinking – about art, economics, power politics and the commodification of the artist: 

“In Japan I was treated like God. If I would have told the students to jump out of a window they would have done it.”

“I can’t bear feminism. I can’t stand that in the USA they first of all count how many women there are in a group exhibition. Art never was democratic. […] When I started my career in Italy there were no female artists at all. I didn’t consider this a problem. I took it on like a man instead. I never felt underprivileged. I always felt superior.”

Janine read aloud these quotes and other litanies of “key terms” from pieces of paper, which she then taped to her dress. Using a sound processor and several pedals, she began to mix the sound of her own voice speaking Abramovic’s words with sounds bites from a video about a performance art boot camp that Abramovic gave in preparation for her now infamous performance The Artist is Present, creating rhythmic loops that slowly built up, intensified and then decayed. The stage was lined with bottles (a tall glass bottle format not found here in Canada) and cans of coke, which became an instrument as well, with its various attributes (for example, the flip-top tab) amplified through contact mics and further electronically treated. 

Although sound was a crucial element, I wouldn’t necessarily consider this performance primarily a sound work. The ambient loops served as a soundtrack to the artist’s ritual, with the audio acting as another layer of the text:

“In real like I like to have fun.”

“You have to put your whole self in, say something. That makes you an artist. Spill your guts. No compromises. Be radical. Invent something new.”

“Discipline. Duration. Silence. Sex. Pain. Violence.”

Re-enactments of past Abramovic performances permeated the space – with actions such as Freeing the Body in which a dancer moves to an unheard soundtrack wearing nothing but a cagoule to hide the face and head; and AAA-AAA (in which a vocalist stands and repeatedly chants “AAA)”. Janine re-created her own Abramovic mini-retrospective infused with an additional level of critical thought and distance from the work.

Creating a series of actions that served to highlight the corporatization of art, Janine took us on a journey of self-effacement, a kind of emblematic erasure of “the artist”, for if the artist is subsumed, are we left with merely the symbol of the artist? In a sense Janine consumed herself through her performance. In a final exultant gesture, having lined up a row of coke bottles in the centre aisle, Janine popped them open one by one, doused herself and the other re-enactment performers and then urgently drank. This bubbly ebony elixir provided a kind of cleansing bath, and the last sips were probably the most harrowing to watch. After several bottles, she had to force it back, but her gag reflex finally gave way to a definitive, and triumphant affirmation: an enormous and sustained belch. 

In presenting seemingly incongruent works, the ensemble of performances organically wove a tangible thread from one piece to the next. While it is a natural impulse to want to make links between disparate things, in the unfolding of the evening, the links built themselves. As theatre director and performance theorist Anne Bogart says, “It is not difficult to trigger the same emotion in everyone. What is difficult is to trigger complex associations so that everyone has a different experience.” As each artist offered her particular brand of authentic and empathetic presence, Imagined Spaces, Lost Objects became just that trigger.

THIS is Performance Art

The following text, THIS is Performance Art, was written by the renowned American performance artist Marilyn Arsem in January 2011, with the intention to be published in conjunction with Infr’Action Venezia’11. This manifesto was conceived for a time when performance art’s true and intrinsic qualities are being confused by notions of live art and re-enactment created by the art media, and is drowning in the unclear matter of its opposite: the staged, the theatrical, the spectacle.

THIS is Performance Art

Performance art is now.
Performance art is live.
Performance art reveals itself in the present.
The artist engages in the act of creation as s/he performs.
Performance art’s manifestation and outcome cannot be known in advance.
Re-enactment of historical work is theatre, not performance art.
Performance art is real.
Performance art operates on a human scale.
It exists on the same plane as those who witness it.
The artist uses real materials and real actions.
The artist is no one other than her/himself. 
There are no boundaries between art and life.
The time is only now.
The place is only here.
Performance art requires risk.
The artists take physical risks using their bodies.
The artists take psychic risks as they confront their limits.
Witnessing a performance challenges an audience’s own sense of self.
Sponsoring performance art, with its unpredictability, requires taking risks.
Failure is always possible.
Performance art is not an investment object.
The work cannot be separated from the maker.
It cannot be held.
It cannot be saved.
It cannot be reproduced.
Performance art is experience – shared time and space and actions between people.
The record of performance art resides in the bodies of the artist and the witnesses.
Performance art is ephemeral.
It is an action created by an artist for a specific time and place.
Witnesses are privy to a unique experience that will never happen again.
Performance art reveals the vulnerability of living.
Performance art reminds us that life is fleeting.
We are only here now.

Affect, Ritual and Materiality in FADO’s Survey From Singapore


It is Friday, October 1, 2010. I enter the Toronto Free Gallery ready for Survey from Singapore, an evening of performance art featuring Amanda Heng, Kai Lam and Lee Wen. I am walking in with a bit of knowledge, culled from the artist’s own statements and my past familiarity with their work: Amanda Heng’s interdisciplinary art practice, addressing clashes between Eastern and Western values, traditions and gender roles in Singapore; Kai Lam’s social commentary performances that are a response to what he calls Singapore’s urban pluralism; and Lee Wen’s art/life works, questioning the ideologies and value systems of their Southeast Asian context. I am walking in with this general knowledge, but, as I find a corner to settle in and enjoy the evening, I find myself letting all of that go in favour of just seeing. Of course, there is no such thing as “just seeing.” Every “seeing” happens within a complex of association, banality, and interpretation. Nonetheless, I try. 


The silence is broken with a gentle ringing. Amanda Heng stands at one end of the gallery, holding a ceremonial bowl. She runs a wooden mallet round and round its rim. A gentle clear sound fills the space, reminiscent of a Buddhist temple. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, it grows in intensity. Then stillness. And again, silence. Focus. And a single, clear, “ding.”


Heng moves to a table set up with a live feed projection against the gallery wall to her right.  She places herself behind the table, gently, with purpose. Holding an orange up to the video camera she cuts it in half and places it face down on the table. Each action is intensified through the close-up of the live feed. In the darkened space of the gallery we can see the detail of the orange’s puckered skin as she inserts a stick of incense into it. She lights it. We are drawn into the magnified fire and then, slowly, the smoke. Into the detail of her hair against the smoke as it curls and rises. Into the materiality of her hand, projected to three or four feet in size. The grain of the image against the wall is seductive. Yet it is in the context of liveness that this seduction lives. It is the prosthetic invitation into the detail of the live action that I find so mesmerizing.  

For ten minutes now Heng has been staring at the burning ember of the incense. The action has been nothing but a stare. Glancing at her body in space, I see very little. In the projected image, however, the incense burns, each millimeter of ash visible as it gathers, falls, and gathers again. Heng gives the action her full attention and, in turn, I give full attention to the details of her face, staring. The smell of incense fills the room. The materiality of the ash and smoke are rivaled only by the materiality of time passing. Heng’s action asks us – no, commands us – to stare, quietly, with her. We may disobey, but in the silence of the room there is nothing else to do but join her in the trance of the ash, with its slight glow, as it grows and falls. Flaccid. Mournful. Before the image, I am drawn into my own emotional landscape, drawn into a poetic commentary on the ravages of time.

Just then, the incense goes out and the gallery lights come up. I am slightly displaced by the bright whiteness of the space after such an intimate dimness. Heng hands out a set of 8 ½ x 11 sheets of paper to the audience members closest to her and asks each to do an action with her.  With the first participant she engages in a kiss mediated by the clean white sheet, their breath – it looks like her sucking in and him blowing out – holding the sheet in place. Another uses an elbow. Another a forehead. From the divided attention of the live feed we are brought into a kind of consummate presence. From silence and severity – the solemnity of the burning ash – to the humour of an absurd encounter between performer and audience-turned-performer. Three sheets. Three people. And the action is over. 

With the audience engaged and brought into the performance, Heng opens a mat, lays it, again ceremoniously, across the gallery floor, and takes out a small booklet. What the booklet is isn’t clear – at least from my vantage point. She takes off her glasses and reads to herself. The book is then placed on the mat along with a small tablecloth. She puts her hands together in prayer and bows. Slowly up and slowly down. Lips moving soundlessly, Heng kneels on the mat. Hands reaching out and moving forward, she prostrates herself. Then, in a slow yogic dance, she balances on her side. Then moves onto her back with hands overhead. And finally back to a frontal prayer with arms and legs up, balancing on her belly. Holding. Holding. A ritual prayer to what? We don’t know. 

Throughout the performance we are brought in to her micro-movements. She lifts herself up and slowly gathers a series of objects, one by one from the table, and places them on the now consecrated floor. Ritual objects: another mat, a bolt of cloth, a bowl, a knife. And then, interspersed with these objects, a set of mundane objects: red boots, a bag out of which she takes a scarf, a bottle of water, a wallet, a shawl, a pair gloves, an umbrella. A performance art still-life. Sitting before the bowl – which looks, from here, as if it is filled with water – Heng picks up an ink brush and begins making what seems like calligraphic shapes in the air, but for all I know she is writing in English. Either way, the action is beautiful.  Slow. Detailed. 

In a way that lets us know that the action is almost complete, Heng folds the cloth that has been the ground for her calligraphy action, stacks the bolts of cloth over each other, and slowly rolls them up from left to right. Lifting the mass like a dead body she walks across the room and suddenly smacks it against the wall. Thwack. Thwack. Thwack. The audience moves away, reminded of performance art’s ever-present threat: get in my way and you may be collateral damage. 

With a deep breath, Heng finishes the performance the way she began, with a ritual sounding – mallet against bowl. This time, however, she performs it walking across the room instead of standing still. With this action closing and cleansing the space, she turns to us and gently utters the first words that I have heard from her: “Thank you for your time.”


We’ve had a small break during which the meditative quality of Heng’s performance has lingered. Meanwhile, I notice that the projector has been moved onto the floor at one end of the gallery, while the next artist, Kai, has quietly begun to set up his space. First he places lengths of wood against the wall. To this he adds a hammer, a license plate, some weeds in a small cup, a small lion statue, something in a bag, a motley pile of books, and a few other odds and ends that I can’t quite make out. He does this surreptitiously, while the audience is milling, glasses of wine in hand, socializing. Suddenly a loud POP grabs our attention. It seems to have come from a large bottle of something that might be Sprite or Tonic Water, but exactly how is unclear. Kai hammers some nails into the wall at the far side of the gallery, hangs up his coat, rips it purposefully, and catapults the soda bottle across the floor.  All our attention now on him, he matter-of-factly takes each of the materials that he had placed against the gallery wall and repositions them in the middle of the space. I see now that there are also two picture frames, a small dish, and something that looks like chopsticks. He grabs the weeds and dumps them on the floor – a floor that is no longer a floor for us but has become a canvas for these objects.

Kai moves through the materials with an intensity that seems less ceremonial than driven.  He stuffs some paper in a glass. Folds some paper. Takes it out. Folds it again. Stuffs it again – the action seems meaning-ful but use-less. There is a portrait on one piece of paper; another is ripped into two pieces. Kai reaches for the lion. Placing it in the center of the space he shakes the soda bottle into a frothy frenzy and rolls it across floor again.  It hisses. He steps on the license plate, plays with a squeaky floorboard and then stops to make music with the two sounds. Floorboard and license plate. Squeak clack. Clack squeak. Engrossed in the process of working with the materials he creates a painting with objects in space… a concert of unconventional objects… an installation in the mundane. Any larger narrative – if there is one – is hidden behind the opacity and seeming randomness of the objects and actions. Instead, he asks us to simply go with him, accumulating detail and visual images, without knowing where they are going.

Kai shakes the bottle and throws it. The audience jumps. He repeats the action, more and more vigorously, teasing us with the threat of violence – whether in the form of the bottle ricocheting off the wall and into our midst or of its bursting and spraying us all. At one point he pretends to kick it into the audience, football style, but catches himself at the last minute, smiling mischievously. His actions are getting quicker – if that’s possible – and more animated. “Somebody got a light?” he asks. “Can I borrow a light?” An audience member hands him a lighter and he proceeds to light what looks like a wick placed on the top of the soda bottle and stick a rolled up piece of paper in a hole in the floor as the wick goes out with a hissing sound. The audience jumps but nothing happens. After a pause he breaks the butt off one cigarette, then a second, and offers one to someone in the audience. While smoking he holds the bottle up to the ears of the audience members seated closest to him. “Do you hear?” he asks. The bottle now spurting, he pours some liquid into small bowl, mixes something that looks like charcoal, and spreads it on his face. With an exaggerated smile he paints himself a mustache. Then, taking something – chocolate? – out of his pocket, he chews it, transforming his smile into a black mess. I can smell the cigarette smoke.

His improvisatory actions recall something of Amanda Heng’s performance, but where her actions were long, concentrated and reverent, his have the edge of mania. He does what looks like calligraphy with a brush on a ripped photocopy. Pours ink onto a stub of something dark. Goes over the calligraphy with an ink stick. Puts the photocopied sheets into frames and displays the framed pieces. Then, taking a tube of white paint out of his pocket, he squishes it onto his hand and covers the logo on his cap – a logo I didn’t even notice until he erased it. Rubbing white across his lips, he eats more of the chocolate. Black teeth. White mouth. He takes his cap off and paints on it: “I heart dalai” and puts it back on. He stands, in black-face, holding up the two pictures, smiling disturbingly.

With a pause to indicate, perhaps, that we are winding towards the end of the performance, Kai turns the projector on. At the far end of the gallery we see a fish swimming around in circles. To the right of the projection, he holds the first picture frame to the wall and hammers through it. He then holds the second one on top of the first and hammers through both of them. The noise is deafening. With the lion standing in the middle of the room, he puts black, blue and red paint on his palm, places his hand to the wall, and creates a trail reminiscent of Ana Mendieta’s 1974 “Body Tracks (Blood Sign #2)”. 

Without warning he smashes the two framed pictures, glass flying. He picks up the lion, turns to the audience, and says, “This lion is a tourist symbol.” Then grabbing an Ontario license plate Kai, hammer in hand, smashes it around and around the lion like some bizarre metalwork blanket. Lion encased and returned to the middle of the space, Kai plays with a small puppet, beheading it and then erecting a yardstick with black flag. Suddenly the images he is playing with have gathered a political edge. He hangs his hat on the wall and addresses the audience: “Yours to Discover,” he says. The audience chuckles, recognizing the ubiquitous Ontario license plate motto.

The tension broken, Lam ends his performance with a story: he tells us of a Native People’s museum he visited in Quebec City. He tells us the story of the Singapore Lion and compares the two as symbols of post-colonial oppression. While telling us these stories, he makes a small slide instrument from a single string and a couple pieces of wood. Playing it as he talks I am thrown back into the ritualistic space of Heng’s performance, but only just. And, all the while, the materials and symbols that he has just spent the better part of an hour playing with surround us. Finished, Kai bows and leaves us in the wreckage.


The final performance of the night is by Lee Wen. Unlike the previous two, the set-up for this one is bare and stage-like:  a guitar, a music stand, a few pieces of sheet music, a tall stool and a small bag. On the wall there is a Singapore tourist logo, which can’t help, at this point, but echo what we have just experienced at the hands of Kai Lam: a strange, fragmented political commentary. The logo reads: “Uniquely Hip… Singapore.”  

Lee enters, dressed all in black. He sits on the stool and addresses the audience: This is called the Anyhow Blues because I believe in the Anyhow Aesthetic of Art Making. In Singapore when we don’t know how to do something we say do it Anyhow. So this is the Anyhow Blues. 

He picks up the guitar and plays. The song is a three or four chord campfire-style bluesy song. As it draws to a close Lee looks up. “Did that bring a smile to your face?” he asks, and the audience laughs. A convivial communitarian laugh. The tone has been set. With barely a pause Lee announces the next song: “Art Is Dead.” This one is a little more urgent. A protest song. Art… is… dead. Dead… is… art. I am reminded of one of Yoko Ono’s songs from Double Fantasy. This has a similarly inscrutable cynicism mixed with unabashed earnestness. 

And now a sad song. 

I was going to sing about the dark clouds of Toronto, because yesterday was really dark…and then, this morning, I wake up to see the sun is shining. Lee launches into a ballad about the sun. We have gone from blues to protest to weather without knowing why or where the performance is going.  We wait; we listen. 

By the way, my name is “too late a hippy.” He puts down his guitar and takes off his scarf.  

Everyone laughs.

I decided… a few years back when I started this project… to become a born-again hippy.

He points to the “Uniquely Hip” slogan. 

I decided to become a born-again hippy because I saw this slogan in the tourist office, and it reminded me of what it was like in Singapore in the 70s and the 60s. It was the time of the Vietnam War, and the state was getting a bit paranoid with these “hippy cultures,” these “subcultures.”

Lee takes off his jacket.

So it was a different “hip.”

He takes off his watch. 

What happened was there was a lot of censorship and paranoia. So if you had long hair, you had to cut your hair. 

He takes a pair of Sarong-style pants out of a bag. 

They would cut your hair at the airport. And songs were banned because they were promoting, what do you call it? Habits of drug culture.

He takes off his pants. He takes off one sock, then the other, holds up the pants and asks Is this hippy enough? We all laugh. These are actually Thai farmer’s pants. I forgot my sarong. I forgot my slippers too. As he ties the oversized pants around his slight frame he grabs a book from the same bag. 

One thing that is happening now in Singapore is a big controversy surrounding the publishing of a book. The book is called “Once a Jolly Hangman.”

Leaning the book against the guitar stand, Lee tells us about the way that it exposes Singapore’s uneven enforcement of the death penalty for even minor drug trafficking and how the Singaporean government has arrested the author on defamation charges. The book isn’t actually banned, he tells us, but not many people want to sell it for fear of government reprisal. 

He takes off his shirt. 

I think people should speak up. There are too many of these defamation charges in Singapore.

He puts on a brightly coloured tie-dye and the room erupts in laughter. 

Perfect shirt, no? I don’t mean to spoil the party, he says. But somebody once said that singing a song is like saying a prayer. I’d like to do this for people who have been sentenced and killed…

He takes out a candle, lights it, puts it on the floor, and picks up the guitar.

…because it is unfair. The Singapore government is one of the biggest supporters of the Myanmar government, where the Golden Triangle is, where they produce heroin. And they are laundering their money in Singapore banks. And the government sentences people who are just mules. And I don’t understand why we let it happen. A lot of them are very young.  Ignorant

He starts another song. 

…Out on Highway 69 they hung the men while still alive… Out on Highway 69 they hung the men until they died…

This time when the song ends the room is silent. No convivial laughing. Just a chill unease as the candle burns.

It’s hard to sing another song. I will just ask, maybe, for a minute of silence. After a minute Lee stands up, thanks us for listening and offers a small bow.


The crowd disperses and mingles while the three performances intertwine, painting a picture of Singapore, performance art-style: Heng’s performance drawing me into the textured detail of an unknown religion, performed through a mixed set of Western and Eastern objects made sacred through performance… Kai drawing me into the space between travel memoir and the public musings of the stranger, abroad, telling tales of his homeland and the culture clash of his present experience… Lee inviting me to nostalgically recall the political and artistic impetus of the 1960s, and reflect, in turn, on politics today. 

I have experienced an evening in three acts – each act blending ritual with political commentary, and each act offering this socio-political commentary through enigmatic actions. I have been privy to the actions of three Singaporean artists who are not in Singapore, each in their own way performing a problematic relationship to a repressive government. I have been drawn into a micro-political mode of attention operating through subtle gesture and porous relations between performer and audience, and have witnessed the mixing of ritually symbolic with mundane objects that have moved us through associations echoing from one performance to another. Three overlapping voices have emerged, tonight, weaving an inconsistent, heterogeneous, and yet resonant national tapestry. 

There is a link to be made, here, between the materiality of the performing body and the materiality of reading and writing about performance. This link is one that Roland Barthes, borrowing from Julia Kristeva, calls the geno-text’s priority over the pheno-text (a distinction drawn from genetic discourse that speaks to those aspects that at once exceed and inhabit signification, transmitting at an affective level). In this context, however, I might rewrite the distinction as one in which the geno-act takes precedence over the pheno-act. This “geno-act” offers an analysis (literally, a loosening up) of the materiality of the to-be-seen-ness in action-art that takes precedence over the content analysis central to much writing about performance, and brings it, instead, into the space of detailed excess, of ritual. 

Indeed, during these performances, and in the situated practice of writing about them, I fing myself inescapably drawn into a certain space of looking – one attentive to what Barthes might call the “grain” of each performance. While Barthes’ term refers to an aural and not a visual encounter, his engagement with what he calls the grain of the voice gets at the materiality of action-based performance in a manner consonant with what I have been drawn into here: a material and temporal detail linked to the embodied experience of viewing; a visual grain that points less to the overtly signifying aspects of a performance encounter than to its ephemeral materiality. This materiality, this grain, is one that, further, speaks to the task of writing about action-art as a practice that does not transcribe the truth of the event, but that, rather, offers an unrepentantly inhabited description – one that, itself, functions as a ritual mode of looking. In Survey from Singapore, the function of ritual – somewhere between the secular and the sacred – has been harnessed and shown to be inherently political in nature. A political that, pace Ranciere, inhabits the very heart of the aesthetic.

Natalie Loveless is an artist, teacher and writer. She recently completed a PhD from the University of California, Santa Cruz, entitled Acts of Pedagogy: Feminism, Psychoanalysis, Art and Ethics. She is a visiting assistant professor in the Visual Arts Department of the University of Western Ontario and is on the editorial board of TOTAL ART the journal of new performance.

Flying Porcelain and Burning Liver: The Contested Spaces of Sinéad and Hugh O’Donnell

As someone who has never been personally affected by nationally-sanctioned, ideological violence I tend to conceptualize its insidious effects as a collective problem. As an outsider I see it myopically, ignorant of the long-term effects on the individual body. Sibling performance artists Sinéad and Hugh O’Donnell both live and work in post civil war Northern Ireland, an area imprinted by civil upheaval. The works both artists presented at the Toronto Free Gallery referenced this — the tumultuous past of their home country — decades after the most severe violent incidents, revealing the perennial endurance of trauma. Even more fascinating is that the pair are originally from Dublin (an area in the South less impacted by the civil war) and both relocated to Belfast to attend university and this is where they now live and create their work. I would guess that the character of contemporary Belfast is one of shifting and plural identities, much like the fragmented postmodern subject. I am curious about how the conflict inherent in this contested space manifests itself subconsciously in the body and the psyche of its citizens.

The choice to reference Northern Ireland in the works presented in Toronto seems indicative of the suspended effects of trauma. Or perhaps being out of one’s familiar surroundings has allowed these artists a different perspective on their normative environment. Ex-patriot artists are faced with this distancing effect over long periods of time as themes of cultural divergence often become preoccupations in their practice. Perhaps, when an artist uses their body as the medium, this distancing effect has an added dimension; even if the artist does not intend to consciously examine their material (the body) in its original context, it is inevitable that it reacts differently to new surroundings or, conversely, that its usual modes of being will be more noticeable out of its comfortable element.

Sinéad’s work, created directly in the space of the gallery, alludes to Ireland abstractly. It is not apparent as a viewer that she is referencing Ireland; however, after listening to a taped interview in which Sinéad speaks about this and other prior performances I drew a connection between her childhood and how she dresses her “stage.” Favouring ordinary objects, she describes, is a way of paying homage to the lineage of her family. (In previous works she has used her grandfather’s hammer to smash dinner plates). In an interview she describes how she has always had what was considered to be an unusual relationship to the objects she surrounds herself with and is interested in their culturally-bound meanings. She says of her use of dinner plates that while they may imply domesticity to a Western audience, they could and would connote affluence in other locales. Perhaps her choice to include objects that refer to her home is not unusual if one imagines the body itself as an object/subject already inscribed by this familiar space. In this scenario the body becomes a subject operating as a mediating object of the performance.

This preoccupation with objects fits with Sinéad’s background as a sculptor. Of her shift from sculpture to performance she says “I took the three-dimensional sculpture out and put my own body in.” Now her works seem to incorporate both elements. She has used dinner plates as materials in previous performances and for this performance entitled Violence is in Me she was considering covering the floor and ceiling with them, but instead opted for stacking them in a tall column. Her mise en scène, which is entirely on the floor of the gallery, also includes haphazardly placed smashed plates and an army helmet. The audience is given a caveat: protect your eyes from flying porcelain. Barefoot, amid broken shards of dinner plates, Sinéad hugs a tall, precarious stack of dinner plates that is just taller than her.  She sways gently with the stack, seemingly attuning herself to their rhythm, while a soundtrack of two voices (a male and female) robotically drones “violent, violent.” Each repetition seems to confirm impending danger, and the suspense gains momentum as the slowness of the movement and repetition of the audio continues. At times the voices seem to be questioning “violence?” or confirming “violence!” It’s impossible to ascertain whether the intonation changes or if the variety originates from my own anxiety and anticipation. At this point I wonder, is violence that is sedentary merely psychological? Can stillness be violent, or does violence require speed? Eventually Sinéad’s arms can no longer physically steady the plates and she lets them fall with an ear-shattering crash. She then dons the helmet, systematically breaking those plates that have survived the fall over her head. As she walks over the broken shards with bare feet, her red blood contrasts with the white porcelain.

Sinéad requested the location of the front of the gallery because of its accessibility to the public eye; there are large windows that allow pedestrians to see the action from the sidewalk. During the performance I consider crossing through the space to view it from this perspective of the accidental encounter, but I hesitate to cross the broken plates, remembering the preceding warning. It crosses my mind that someone might call the police because of the noise and promise of violence. Despite the commotion, several people come and go from the inside to the outside of the space. During the performance I am highly conscious of my own “performance” — there are times when the sound of the smashing is excruciating, and yet I don’t cover my ears. I have become aware of my visibility as a spectator and am slightly self-conscious in the negotiation between my body and how I imagine and manage it.

As a spectator of this work, in this space framed by the window, I felt like a performer for the other spectators — those serendipitous and accidental — who were passing by the gallery window. Theorist Vivian Sobchack, although she deals primarily with cinematic performance, describes this conflict between the self, as it is lived by the subject, and self as imagined as an object, in phenomenological terms. “[…] insofar as we subjectively live both our bodies and our images each not only informs the other, but they also become significantly confused” (36). This negotiation becomes complicated when the body is expected to abide by rigid societal behavioural expectations, such as gender roles. Judith Butler has examined this conflict, concluding that gender is always performatively expressed based on binary gender constructions. She uses drag to indicate this thesis, “In imitating gender drag implicitly reveals the intimate structure of gender itself — as well as its contingency” (187). She concludes that an original archetype of this imitation does not exist; gender exists in a paradox as an semblance without origins.

© Hugh O’Donnell, 2010. Photo Henry Chan.

This negotiation between body identification and image is central to Hugh O’Donnell’s past work (he is known for playing with cross-dressing alter egos) and his performance at TGF that night, entitled Invert Two (previously titled Being Gay in the GAA, short for Gaelic Athletic Association) is no exception. Starting its life as improvised work created in 2008 and performed in various manifestations, it is an examination of his struggle to maintain a facade of heterocentric masculinity in a traditional and highly religious community. Specifically, it is an expression of Hugh’s childhood and adolescent struggle to align himself with the expectations of his father by conforming to the hyper-masculine sports hero archetype. The soundtrack of the work, a loop of Hugh’s voice done in one take, evokes white-picket-fence suburbia. “Me me me mmememememe. Vagina vagina vagina. I love short hair. Suited and booted. Cut the grass, cut the grass, cut the grass…” Hugh’s droning voice at first is comical, but, with repetition, takes on a rather sinister tone. When asked about it he explains the impetus of creation as motivated by childhood memories, “I thought I was mentally ill. I thought if I said [vagina] enough I would start liking vaginas.” The hair and grass-cutting statements are directly related to his father; “cut the grass” was his way of saying “do the things you’re supposed to.” He makes little separation between the audio and the other materials he uses (including his own body) saying, “I don’t see the audio as a separate thing, it’s just another material, just as the painted man boob is.”

Hugh’s piece was presented in the back gallery of TFG and as the audience enters this darker and more private space we are confronted by this audio soundscape and the smell of burning liver. Hugh is seated on a chair, legs splayed, with a metallic gold women’s purse over his head. He is wearing black athletic clothing and black boots. On the front of his T-shirt is the acronym N.A.R.T.H (National Association of Research Therapy for Homosexuals) and on the back of the T-shirt is the acronym P.A.T.H (Positive Alternative Treatments for Homosexuals). There are props placed in the space; several electric frying pans containing liver, a pair of cleats, blue paint, a tin of sugar, a chair and a bucket of water. He considers these materials ingredients in his performance, to mix, remix and match as he pleases. Several of these objects have metaphoric meaning for Hugh and are not necessarily apparent to the audience (for instance, in the UK and Ireland a cut piece of fried liver is known as a faggot).

After removing the purse from his head and seeing the audience for the first time there is frenzied energy as he busies around with his “props,” putting on one cleated shoe and pouring sugar on the floor, delineating a line between where the audience has chosen to stand against the walls and leaning on the stairs in the space. He writes two words, as large as he can, with blue paint on the gallery walls; first “invert” and second “stoic.” The former he says was borrowed from Freud’s descriptions of homosexuals and is a word he imagines being used in a derogatory manner. “Stoic,” is written because in Hugh’s words “I’m not being stoic.” He cuts a hole in his shirt, exposing a blue-painted breast. He pours milk from a paint tin over his exposed breast, then angrily smashes the remaining milk against the wall, trapping the milk inside the center of the O in stoic, making an allusion between his own body and the drawn “breast” on the wall. There is also a nod to Freud in this gesture; it seems a rejection of the normative family. His deportment throughout the work is hyper-masculine, he staggers around with wide strides as if on a soccer field; however, he also appears to be emotionally and physically drained by this “performance.”

© Hugh O’Donnell, 2010. Photo Henry Chan.

In the climax of the work Hugh pours a circle of salt around himself, separating himself from his viewers. He spins in a circle, faster and faster, frantically, until he is too disoriented stand. He staggers around the space running into some audience members who help him regain his composure. Pulling down his pants we see his has also painted a blue stripe down his ass. The work concludes sadistically, with Hugh demolishing a chair against the concrete wall. Collaged over the word “stoic,” this violent act is a further metaphor for his break from the traditional family, as outlined by Freud. The domestic illusion of normality has been physically shattered, but it still leaves its mark on the psyche. Plunging his head into a pail of water, as if drowning himself repeatedly. It seems like a self-inflicted initiation ritual. The memory of this masculine physicality expected by the GAA will never be totally expunged from his body.

© Hugh O’Donnell, 2010. Photo Henry Chan.

The audience leaves with the smell of burnt meat clinging to our clothing. In his interview Hugh describes this as part of the performance, saying that it’s a reminder that the queer community is here to stay. He says, “We are everywhere. We are in your face.” The lingering aroma is analogous to the persistence of geographical violence to impact the people who live in its vicinity. Even though the O’Donnell’s were not specifically subject to extreme violence growing up in Dublin in the 70s and 80s, the reverberations still remain (Belfast was the site of several of the most violent conflicts in Northern Ireland, particularly in the 70s). Performance artist Sandra Johnston, who performed at the Toronto Free Gallery in September 2009 often works directly at sites of trauma. Interestingly, in her Toronto show she found herself less influenced by the space and more by personal emotion (her grandmother had recently passed). One could interpret this shift for Johnston as another indication that the body, out of its normative context becomes a focus; the trauma of the space, in this case, became a preoccupation with the distress held in the body. 

I was left wondering how it is possible for an individual to vanquish trauma. Sigmund Freud’s Mourning and Melancholia (1917), discusses how mourning the loss of an individual is similar to how we collectively assimilate grief. He asks us how can a larger group of citizens, in which its members do not necessarily know each other but have ethnic or religious commonalities, become a community susceptible to perennial mourning? And, when and why does normal grieving become prolonged mourning? The individual, while mourning the loss of a loved one, will often attempt to make the characteristics of them our own. This could include certain personality quirks, figures of speech, mannerisms, or even the physical objects that the deceased owned. To extend this question of purging, how does the collective body expunge grief? Sociologist Paul Connerton suggests that monuments are devices that assist collective memory acting in lieu of the personal objects of the individual (How Societies Remember, 1989). Performance artists like Johnston have addressed this question by creating ephemeral monuments through their work in these sites of trauma. In her Toronto performance, her work which was usually concerned with collective experiences of spaces, became preoccupied with mourning the loss of her grandmother. Her physical movement could be considered an inhabitation of the deceased’s mannerisms. 

In the case of Hugh’s work, when the subject matter is traumatic, the body represents a medium through which catharsis occurs, ritualistically channelling trauma — certainly for individual freedom — but also possibly as a collective reaction. Hugh, who uses many found objects in his work, selected objects to represent his alienation and dis-identification with hetero-normative society. Although he is not mourning the death of an individual, one could say he is mourning the death of an image, a way-of-being. These words, describing Freud’s analysis in Mourning and Melancholia seem to correspond to Hugh’s relationship to this work.

Accordingly, the love and hate (ambivalence) that originally connected the mourner to the lost person or thing now turns the mourner’s self-representation into a battlefield. The mourner now feels the struggle between love and hate within the the self-representation that assimilated the ambivalently related mental representation of the lost item through a total identification with it. This results in depression, which has its own typical physical symptoms […] When hate towards the assimilated mental representation of the lost object becomes dominant, some mourner may even attempt to kill themselves (suicide) in order to ‘kill’ the assimilated mental representation. (Volkan 95-6)

The self-flagellation through drowning, near the end of Hugh’s performance is indicative of this very desire to kill the representation of Hugh’s ideal image, the heroic athlete his father would have liked him to be, an image that was never a reality. The physicalization of this “death”  is a metaphor for the mental process of letting go, which is how the performance is cathartic for Hugh and possibly the audience by extension. Perhaps performance, as ritual, has the power to dispel that which we wish to exorcise from our individual body and collective psyches. Maybe living in a healthy society is synonymous with having a healthy body.

Works Cited:

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Connerton, Paul. How Societies Remember. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Freud, Sigmund. Mourning and Melancholia. 1917. Trans. Shawn Whiteside. New York: Penguin, 2005.

Sobchack, Vivian. “Scary Women: Cinema, Surgery and Special Effects” Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2004.

Volkan, Vamik D. “Not Letting Go: From Individual Perennial Mourners to Societies with Entitlement Ideologies” On Freud’s ‘Mourning and Melancholia.’ Ed. Bokanowski, Thierry, Leticia Glocer Fiorini and Ethel Spector Person. London: Karnac, 2007.

On Escapist Action: Performance in Recession

The context of performing in Canada has changed extensively since Dot Tuer first observed these actions: 

On Queen Street corners, performance art is an everyday occurrence of spontaneous street actions and bodily gestures.(1) 

It is somewhere in this dystopic territory – one in which the looking glass of simulation mirrors back narratives of the subject and representation of the body – that a context for performance art emerges in the 1980s.(2)

How does performance exist now? And just as importantly – why? Fast-forward twenty five years, and Parkdale still retains some of its charm (and problems), sandwiched between the continually gentrifying Queen Street West and Roncesvalles village. Toronto’s architectural boom, orchestrated to remake it as a “city of innovation” is punctuated by a sudden turn for the worst at the end of the first decade of the 21st century. Globally, from bombings to political scandals and massive natural disasters, to the weakening dollar, crash of the housing market and global recession, the last ten years have been the bleakest in history (according to some)(3). Like the scenarios in Dot Tuer’s Toronto, seen through the looking glass the city becomes a stage where performer’s motions and gestures evoke all the feelings the recession has inflicted.(4) The five artists (four projects) curated by Don Simmons in Escapist Action: Performance in Recession and focused on in this essay, best embody the zeitgeist of the current economic state, and not in their actions alone, but in how these gestures evoke very telling audience responses.

Julian Higuerey Núñez and Ignacio Peréz Peréz collaborated in week-long series of performances, created using the 72 objects they received during their first day of performance, in their titled Open Barter Market. The artists brought with them 72 objects from their hometown of Caracas, Venezuela, with hopes to trade equally meaningful objects with audience members. The objects from Venezuela weren’t merely souvenirs, but ranged from personal momentos given by loved ones to childhood relics, each with a story of their own, that the artists were happy to share with you while you traded your object with them. They too, were interested in the story of your object. This initial gesture would set the stage for the rest of the week. Putting restraints and parameters around the work in this manner establishes some control for the artists, but much of the power lies in the barteree.

I arrived at InterAccess on November 23rd to participate in the market. I scanned the gallery for the objects I wanted and negotiated the trades with one of the two artists. Afterwards each traded object is logged and a photo is taken of the barteree and their new object, as well as the artist and their new object. These records are then immediately put online on the artists’ blog. It was difficult for me to barter without having feelings of attachment and responsibility for what I was taking, and leaving behind. As I went through some stuff at home I found myself thinking “What will the artists find most useful?” Admittedly though, another sentiment took over: “Do I really need this?” But, one person’s (performance art) trash could be another person’s (performance art)treasure. One gallerist, bartering a birdcage mentions, “Oh, this was just in my basement for a long time.” Perhaps that’s not exactly the best criteria for offering great source material. Ignacio said his exchange with me was one of the most meaningful ones of the day. What’s that old adage? What’s good for the goose is good for the gander?

During the week leading up to the performances on Black Friday, Red Flag Saturday and Grey Cup Sunday (weekend events of the Escapist Action series), Higuerey Núñez and Pérez Pérez performed with each of the 72 newly bartered objects, creating a new performance each hour on the hour, from 9am to 9pm for six days, accumulating a total of seventy two hours. The title of the project, The Artist and the Beanstock fittingly narrates the artists’ own experiences arriving to Toronto (change in climate, and a certain amount of culture shock), while heralding the classic tale of Jack and the Beanstalk, where the hero’s error of trading his last piece of material wealth is remedied by finding new riches (by stealing from a giant). Each of the 72 performances were streamed live on the web making thework accessible, and invariably added an ironic tone. Information on the internet has fed recession fears and yet has connected people to news (not to mention, speculation) and spurred change faster than ever.

In the wake of this, the performance series Escapist Actions: Performance In Recession did a uniquely Canadian thing and offered a range of relatively objective and unscathing responses, while projecting an understanding of just how jarring the current economic climate is. We are all restless, and we are a restless audience. This is key to understanding all the performances. The work shown made people feel restless for a variety of reasons, and this restlessness is a reflection not only of the work, but of the response regular folk have to the current economic recession.

InterAccess, the main venue for the series, is currently facing hard times of its own, making the whole situation rather apropos. Having my own personal and professional ties to InterAccess, for me this feeling lingered as I watch the performances, and I sensed that this and other feelings of apprehension are present in all the work. Pérez Pérez and Higuerey Núñez’s project took over the entire gallery and permeates the space. Each hourly performance was created on the spot, completely improvised based on the bartered object. For one performance, Pérez Pérez used twine to wrap around a central pillar at InterAccess, through the door handles, out the main doors, into the hall, back through the gallery space and around the same pillar, following the same path again and again until the string broke and needed to be tied together. After using up the twine, Pérez Pérez beckoned an assistant. The spool was placed in her hand, then he dropped to all fours and begged. She tossed the spool, and he fetched it. This gesture was repeated until he sat at her feet. This seamless transformation of a familiar space and familiar objects transitioned into a change of power dynamics. The artist begged, played, and cowered like a dog after the audience accommodated his transformation of the space. A fair exchange? Potentially, and disarming for the audience. 

Meanwhile, artist Tomas Jonsson had set up shop at 3072 Dundas Street West. Slightly north of Parkdale, this Junction neighbhourhood is still negotiating gentrification, littered with a glut of failing businesses and a whole new populace moving in. The goal of Jonsson’s work, titled Magpie was to create “a personal engagement with a variety store that has been a long time fixture in the Junction neighbourhood of Toronto, another area of the city whose retail identity is rapidly changing.” Jonsson purchased several items from this eclectic store, and set up shop across the street in front of a construction wall, marking where another store had been. In exchange for his goods, in a similar spirit to Núñez and Pérez, Jonsson asked participants to tell him what they wanted this empty lot to become, which he would then post on the wall. Rather than entertain escapism as passive consumption, his work very actively  subverts it, going straight to the heart of the matter, and the neighbourhood, to ask people directly about how they feel when they see their community being gentrified. The objects do not have the cache, it’s the stories. Suggestions included ‘shoe store,’ ‘diner,’ bank’,The artist’s agenda suddenly seemed very different than the community and the developer’s agenda. Perhaps it’s a case of confusing wants and needs.  Your story might be intriguing, and through this project the artist gives the viewer a voice, but dollars to donuts the Wal-mart still comes to town.

Later that night at InterAccess, claude wittmann presented his piece, my first witch piece. It was framed as an exploration of witches, and what it means to be accused of being a witch. Wearing all black and a charm made of feathers and pieces of an antler, the artist asked the audience sit on the floor with him. He explained his interest in the history of witches and how his fascination kept him on the fence. He wanted to believe and immerse himself but sometimes he couldn’t; a perplexing balance. He pointed to a jar of ‘flying ointment’ he had made, sitting in the centre of the circle, and listed its ingredients (stating that he omitted anything unethical or poisonous). He invited the audience to verify it, as it would be part of the performance. He then began to lead the audience in breathing and meditation exercises designed to dispel fears; He suggested people find a comfortable position, and express their feelings verbally throughout the meditation.

Accusations of witchcraft were fraught with anxieties, insecurities and outright sexism. Yet, it is not uncommon in situations of crisis to find a return to religion or the more spiritual. During and after World War I many new church groups emerged, begging mankind to repent from evil and return to God, and begging forgiveness for the atrocities and suffering of the Great War. Paralleling this was another lunatic fringe: the séance. This return to spirituality also provoked some to try to find a means of connecting to loved ones lost.(5) Connecting me to these ideas are wittmann’s own musings: “if we all decided not to commit to this image [an image of reality] it would disappear.” Here, we are given a very different reading of the definition of recession, one of going back, receding and withdrawing, this time into oneself.

Perhaps where things began to unravel in wittmann’s performance was when a protocol was suggested: during part two of the performance the artist asked the audience to apply the ointment to places on the body with particular energies -anywhere on the left side of the body or in contact with the earth, or on the genitals. It was perhaps this last suggestion that caught the audience off guard. Listen to your body; it’s all about you. As the performance progressed, the ointment was distributed and for those who chose to, applied. Some found the means to sink into themselves. wittmann became consumed by his actions. Would the ointment work if you wanted it to? The performance was aimed to make everyone feel like a witch, to become their own personal mediums for themselves, but instead became a spectacle. The audience couldn’t seem to find it in themselves to commit to wittmann’s sorcery. Another symptom of the recession era – doubt, mistrust and maligned séances. 

Depression-era entertainment was the subject of the next performance that evening. With the rise of the proverbial curtain, Rodolphe Yves Lapointe presented himself to the audience tied to the wooden chair he was sitting on holding a sign on black paper, upon which was written in white chalk: “will he survive his work?” This stylized cue card reminded me of the black and white text narration of silent movies. Movies were often indulged in during the Great Depression, as during times of recession in modern day, as they offered wholesome fantasies allowing viewers to escape their own harsh realities. Is it ironic that the 1930s film industry led to the boom of the Classical Hollywood era, only now to find Hollywood the source of so much personal drama and ennui in the age of reality television? Although Lapointe was able to untie himself, he kept certain parts of his body restrained with the ropes being held by the audience. Taking a small axe he cut an arbitrary amount of rope, and proceeded to tie classical sailing knots and deliver anecdotes about their names, uses, origins. Lapointe blew a whistle before each knot name,  turning the magician escape act into boy scout recreational activities. After tying the “hangman’s noose knot” he demonstrated its use (with the audience’s help) by hoisting sandbags equaling his weight. Furthering his demonstration he then wrapped the noose around his own neck. He smoked his “last cigarette” and punctuated his execution aesthetics with another title card, before asking for the audience’s help, one last time, in hanging himself. Despite their cooperation so far, in the end the audience refused to help him hang himself. But not before going half way, and offering a slight tension on the rope. Quite quickly, Lapointe slipped his neck from the noose and fell to the floor, ending the performance. Was this a plan b in case the audience really anted to see him hanged? The paradox of Lapointe’s performance lied in the assumption of autonomous, passive spectatorship. The audience watching Lapointe’s actions were asked to participate, yet compliance was assumed. When the audience refused to finish the job, so to speak, and their commitment annulled, one wonders if he was really going to do it.

The next night of the series, Red Flag Saturday, had two performances, one also taking a violent turn. The first, Calentura, is part of a series of new performance works by John G Boehme. “Looking into the performance of gender, specifically masculinity, the valorization of labour, the pursuit of leisure, and the marshaling of amity, John explores language and paralanguage, the spoken and gestural aspects of human communication.”(6) The work began with two videos projected on either wall of the gallery depicting teenagers throwing plates and fluorescent tubes into the camera. Boehme had a colleague with him. The younger accomplice and the artist enticed the audience to drink Pabst Blue Ribbon and Canadian Club whisky with them, as if to achieve camaraderie. The age difference between Boehme and his accomplice confused fraternal and paternal loyalties. Boehme took a few moments to take some drugs (or so it would appear) and then he tied a dresser to a ceiling beam, and Hitler’s face and the McDonald’s logo were drawn on either side with a black marker. The two fascist icons. Together they proceeded to throw knives at the swinging dresser, play the guitar (roaring single cords, played loudly and not too well) and entice the audience. It was unclear whether or not the work was meant to be participatory; maybe we were all just too scared to move. Once drawers were smashed Boehme cut the dresser from it’s tether, and his accomplice smashed it to pieces ending the performance.

Similarly to wittman’s personal exploration, the recession Boehme references is a return to memory and history. Because this performance was pretty stressful for the audience to experience, it’s hard to interpret anything leisurely about it. A clue in the form of a title: Calentura is a region in California where Boehme spent some of his youth. The artist mused to me after the performance that many of his friends there were surfers, some of whom had million-dollar surfing sponsorships from Billabong and Quiksilver. Angst riddled youth with spare time and copious spending money is a dubious combination. When youths reach the point of rebellion, these processes of questioning and breaking rules (and plates, sometimes) is normal, but now that these things can be put on YouTube and shared as a group, growing pains can be labeled deviant, and Boehme offered a stylized display of the typical worst. wittmann’s performance showed that everyone wants a scapegoat, and economic turmoil may try to solidify causal links between recession, anger and violence. Major research show this continues to be a red herring.(7) Boehme’s work makes the viewer wonder if they misspent their youth, and the deceptive power balance keeps the audience at bay. Both artists work illustrate escapist actions and coping mechanisms for financial turmoil, yet their audiences paradoxically can’t withdrawal from the scenario and also face the difficulty of becoming immersed.

Towards the end of the series, there was a light at the end of the tunnel. Recessions are supposed to be a natural part of business, and what goes down must come up. In an inclusive gesture both celebratory but cautionary, David Frankovich’s Grey Cup Party was a performance, installation and intervention staged on the day of the Grey Cup (the Super Bowl of the north). Camaraderie and sportsmanship were viewed through a queer lens, as historical victorian references and various Earl Greys were mixed. “The Grey Cup is also the name of the trophy given to the winning team of the CFL and is named for Albert Grey, the 4th Earl Grey and former Governor General of Canada. Every year, millions of Canadians watch the Grey Cup from home on their TVs. Earl Grey tea is an aromatic tea blend made with oil of bergamot. Like the Grey Cup, it is also named for an Earl Grey, but a different one: Charles Grey, the 2nd Earl Grey and former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.” Male lineage as patriarchy were subtly critiqued in this piece, while other surprises happened along the way. Four ‘dandies’ sat to watch the football game in a grey object adorned room in a Victorian hotel, while other spectators (mostly women) came for tea and the performance. The performers were consumed in watching football, and the audience was consumed with watching the watching of footballBeyond the artist’s control were the commercials aired on the CBC that day, which were frequent, gendered, and aiming at a specific clientèle that weren’t necessarily present that night. While the performance intended to subvert the dominant narrative of the Grey Cup, it did so while inadvertently indulging in class tourism; plus, only so much tea come be consumed before getting the point. As the game wore on, eventually the Dandies started to serve tea to the audience, mingling, as unclear how the narrative would end as everyone else. An upset by the Montreal Alouettes ended the performance, the football game, and the series. Like some recessions, the problems continue, slowly fading out with a murmur, leaving most people to the daily monotony as if nothing had happened.


(1) Dot Tuer. Gestures in the looking glass: performance art and the body. Mars, Tanya and Householder, Johanna. Caught In The Act: an Anthology of Performance Art by Canadian Women. Toronto: YYZ Books, 2004, Page 54.

(2) Ibid, 56.

(3) Time Magazine. ‘Goodbye to a decade from hell’ by Andy Sewer. Published November 2009.

(4) On some, Toronto and Canada have been relatively unscathed by the recession.
(5) For examples, see Spiritualism: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spiritualism

(6) Artist statement from Boehme’s website. Accessed 02/04/2010. http://people.finearts.uvic.ca/~jgboehme/

(7) See Media violence research and youth violence: Why do they conflict? Dr. Cheryl K Olson, M.P.H, S.D. Accessed 02/04/2010. http://ap.psychiatryonline.org/cgi/content/full/28/2/144

Eyewitness Account: TallBlondLadies
© TallBlondLadies, 2009. Photo Stephanie Sirant.

Even before arriving at YYZ gallery, a steady beat of loud rhythmic slaps could be heard from the hallway of the 401 Richmond building. Upon entering the performance space, the noise was revealed as the stomps of two tall blonde women wearing snowshoes. The stoic women had their arms extended in front of them wrapped around large red yoga balls. They were carrying the inflated balls in front of their chests and abdomens. The women were dressed in a more revealing version of traditional alpine folk costume; suspendered grey lederhosen micro-shorts and cropped white milkmaid style blouses exposing bare shoulders and midriffs. The women wore no make-up. They wore their shoulder length blonde hair down. Their long bare legs lead to white fur-lined winter boots strapped into their oval shaped snowshoes. These were the only props and accessories. The bright red colour of the yoga balls contrasted sharply against the muted non-colours of the clothing. The room was otherwise empty except for the audience members and the loud shudders of the slapping snow shoes. 

© TallBlondLadies, 2009. Photo Stephanie Sirant.

The performance was comprised of two distinct parts or acts that blended into one another. The first set of gestures had the women maintaining an equidistance from each other, as they made their way clockwise around the perimeter of an imaginary circle the size of the room. They were not walking, but rather stomping their snowshoed feet to an unaccompanied beat approximately one stomp per second. Without warning they would suddenly turn on their heels and continue with the stomping in a counter-clockwise direction. They remained equidistant apart on a smaller imaginary circle. Again they would pivot making the circle smaller and drawing nearer to another.  Eventually, the woman would come so close to one another, that as they turned to pivot, their protruding yoga balls would collide, knocking the women off their seemingly magnetized pull and back onto their starting path. At no point did the women make eye contact. I later learned that the pattern they were following was a celtic knot. This spiralling went on for quite some time. I counted 22 stomps between collisions. The perpetuating stomping path to collision went on for about 20 minutes when the performance transitioned seamlessly into the second act.

© TallBlondLadies, 2009. Photo Stephanie Sirant.

Rather than colliding at the center of the room, the women suddenly dropped their yoga balls on the ground and sat face to face, with knees interwoven on the red yoga balls. They sat staring expressionlessly at one another for a minute or two and then began to gently bounce. Gradually the bouncing became more pronounced. With each bounce the balls made a squish and the floor a small creak. Another few minutes passed and then the women began to play game of silent “patty-cakes.” They did not speak out loud or break their stares. The only sounds were the rhythmic handclaps of the girls mirroring each other, and the squishing/creaking sounds made by the balls. This went on for about fifteen minutes before the women quite suddenly stood up and transitioned back into the first act of the performance. It seemed the transition was one of girlhood and play into womanhood and labour.

© TallBlondLadies, 2009. Photo Stephanie Sirant.

Unlike other fertility rites, where traditional symbolism and gestures are used, the TallBlondLadies’ Potential Fertility Rite used untraditional symbols and gestures. Symbols of winter and summer were used concurrently; clothing was summer, footwear was winter. The lederhosen the women/girls were wearing fall into the category of german menswear, the old traditional snow shoes allude to traditional Swedish culture but the white snow boots were brand new an of contemporary fashion.  Traditional fertility issues like menstruation or childbearing were possibly alluded to (the red balls= menstruation, womb, pregnant belly, red + pulsing = heartbeat, or symbolic of life.) but there was no reference to the natural world.  Where a traditional fertility rite might use flowers or plants, the TallBlondLadies used latex. 

Rather than a spiritualized, sexualized, celebratory or even emotive invocation, this performance was cool and calculated. There was no graceful dancing, no organic flows or motions in the performance. The TallBlondLadies did not embellish, adorn, or exaggerate their femininity or sexuality, despite the revealing costume. Everything was rigid. It was like watching the cogs and gears of a swiss watch, or a perpetual machine operating; with every collision providing the inertia to sustain the actions of the next cycle. The TallBlondLadies’ sense of time and synchronization was impeccable at first, early in the evening. But as time went on and the performers began to tire, a few mistakes or breaks to the synchronized cycle were made. They recovered well from these, at least in the hour or so that I spent at the performance. One women would stay in place until the other recovered. The rhythmic stomping induced a meditative state in me. I believe it was the same for other members of the audience. I applaud the tall TallBlondLadies for the level of discipline, concentration and endurance (both physical and mental) that it requires to perform in this manner for five hours.

Stephanie Sirant is a student of Johanna Householder’s at the Ontario College of Art & Design (OCAD).

Sandra Johnston’s Ephemeral Monuments

Upon entering the Toronto Free Gallery, a former a hardware store, I could almost still smell the lingering odours of paint and metal. I enter the performance space knowing that Sandra Johnston uses space as a character in, rather than a mere container of her work, and so I imagine how she will interpret this atmosphere; I envision various literal scenarios and toolbelt props, all the while knowing that this is certainly not how Johnston will portray the space. In fact, during her performance I don’t really see any relation to the history of the building at all. The performance space, at the back of the gallery, is a large darkly-painted black box, illuminated solely by two square holes and one tiny circular hole in the floor which let in the light from the basement below. Navigation through the room is tentative. At the far end of the room there is a raised platform with stairs connecting the two levels.  

The audience takes their place in this dim room, sitting and standing wherever they find a spot that pleases them. Johnston begins with slow repetitive hand and foot gestures. I can’t decipher if her eyes are closed or slightly open; regardless, she appears to be feeling her way through her movements rather than connecting directly with the spectator. It is as though she senses our presence, knowing us in a way that sight will not allow. Her movements are pedestrian in intention, but made unusual through their compulsive repetition. A rocking movement, originating as gesture, ripples through her body and into her feet and we watch as her toes cover and uncover a speck of bright light. Is it an ember? A laser? Johnston continues on drawing the audience through the space with her. Upon closer inspection, we see that the ember is actually a tiny hole in the floor. But Johnston has shuffled off with hunched posture toward another light, a larger square hole cut in the floor in the corner of the room. The light illuminates her face from below, giving her a ghoulish appearance. She stands in the hole and is suspended mid calf. It looks uncomfortable. I feel antsy and want her to step out. 

Throughout the performance Johnston hands are a central focus. She rubs tissues through her fingers, rubbing them until they disintegrate and their grainy texture is embodied through the movement of her entire body. Her downtrodden posture and tentative steps remind me of an elderly homeless person. As I watch I am curious to about how these movements relate to her perception of the space. 

The selection of the space is a choice that Johnston prefers to make herself. When this is not possible (as in this performance) and she has not even seen the space before arriving, the exploration begins from a truly blank place. For Johnston, the process of getting acquainted with a location never reaches a definite end and consequently, she doesn’t present what she considers a conclusive performance, but rather a finale of her process within the space, a technique which involves getting to know a space by working intimately within it. Certainly her work is informed from the site; however, this process of acquaintance involves a more reciprocal relationship; the environs react to her just as she is impacted by them. In this case, Johnston had access to the gallery for six days, with the final presentation occurring on the last day, September 25, 2009. Although many of the sites she has worked within are public, her process within the spaces is mainly a private one, only exposed to the public in its later, or even final stages. 

Johnston is primarily known for her previous work in the history of trauma and how site relates to  often disturbing memory. Previous locations for performances have included sites stigmatized by violence in Tel Aviv, Madrid and her native Northern Ireland. Fascinated by the role of place in the catharsis of the victim, she mentions to me that witnesses or victims are compelled to return to the site of the incident as a integral component of the healing process. The performances in these locations then act as an intervention in the history of the space, allowing new memories to be created and shared within a site previously associated with intense trauma. 

The role of location in trauma recovery is perhaps most evident in our desire to remember through the permanence of architecture. In his article, On Memory, Trauma, Public Space, Monuments, and Memorials, Julian Bonder discusses the commemorative role architectural monuments play in the collective psyche.

“As events and circumstances unveil in the present, a memorial’s destiny is to recall the past and provide conditions for new responses in the future. As our psycho-political and ethical companions, memorials should help us consider trauma and rethink and reactualize the past. They should encourage critical consciousness, committed memory-work, and the possibility of engaging with the world through transformative practices.” (62)

Johnston’s site-reactive work echoes this interventionist philosophy. She recognizes the physical catharsis of returning to the physical location of trauma, as if the body perceives the significance of its physical space in the process of recovery and grieving. In this way, her performances become like ephemeral monuments; the memory of the performance persists as both a way to recall the trauma and as a new conceptualization of the site, altering the individual and collective memory of it.

While Johnston’s origins lie in locational memory, in recent performances (including her Toronto performance) the site is more benign and she is left to interpret the site’s character and “essence” in the absence of any prior perception of it, interpreting the surrounding environs as she encounters them. In this case Johnston works to alter audience perception of the surroundings by highlighting the quotidian aspects of it. Her movements are based on both the space itself and her interactions in the surrounding neighbourhood.

Johnston’s current focus on everyday rituals and occurrences require an attention to habitual and unconscious neighbourhood activity that only an outsider could identify. However, I am struck by the similarities between her trauma work and her more “benign” performances which similarly rely on her attention to the body as a vessel of memory. Bonder suggests that memorials give us a way of representing memory in a cathartic and interpretive manner. It is in our return to the physical site of trauma that initiates a certain type of healing. In much the same way that the grave commemorates the dead and an epitaph creates a representation of the individual, a monument interprets an event for collective memorial. Theorist Paul Connerton insists that more ephemeral events, namely commemorative ceremonies fulfill much the same role and are unconsciously reified through bodily manifestations. “We can also preserve the past deliberatively without explicitly re-presenting it in words and images […] In habitual memory the past is, as it were, sedimented in the body” (72). Connerton is suggesting an embodied memory, one inaccessible to the intellect alone, one experienced through physicality. His interpretation of habitual memory seems on par with Johnston’s quotidian work in which she observes the everyday workings of neighbourhoods and the movement of their inhabitants. Although, Johnston does not seek only to commemorate through her practice; her goal is not to re-create the trauma in the event as a means of remembering it, rather her work is meant  as an intervention in the memory of the place.

In fact, the performance I witnessed was uncharacteristic of Johnston, who told me that this work took on a more personally motivated character than usual. My impressions of aged and homeless imagery were accurate; while familiarizing herself with the surrounding environs of the gallery, she became fascinated by the repetitive gestures of a homeless man, whom she followed and observed for an entire afternoon. Circumstances from her personal life also came to shape her interaction within the space. Johnston was coming to terms with the recent death of her grandmother, who had been suffering from Alzheimer’s. In this performance the embodied memory of trauma, albeit of a personal nature, was her impulse for creation as she relived childhood memories that occurred in a secondary spacial character: her grandparents house.

When considering her process, one that she describes as including meditation, I am not surprised that personal experience would tint Johnston’s interaction within a space. While watching her perform I sensed that she views her body as a medium to channel the energy of a place and its atmosphere. It is not surprising that the body’s own recent trauma or sensations play a major role in this translation of environs. If one subscribes the idea that the body is inscribed with memory, then it can never be a tabula rasa. In reaction to a canon of performance art writing that proclaims the body to be an unmediated medium, performance theorist Amelia Jones reacts to the idea that body art provides a direct channel of communication between artist and audience. She challenges the assumed ontology of the performance “object,” (the body).

“The ‘unique’ body of the artist in the body artwork only has meaning by virtue of its contextualization within the codes of identity that accrue to the artist’s body and name. Thus, this body is not self-sufficient in its meaningfulness but relies not only on an authorial context of ‘signature’ but on a receptive context in which the interpreter or viewer may interact with this body. (Jones 14)”

According to Jones, there are two layers of mediation that prevent body movement from being a solely ontological communication medium: the way the artist chooses to represent themselves based on a complex conception of the self and the situation in which the performer presents themselves. Grief is a viscerally embodied experience and its resonances still reside in Johnston’s body. 

In the last minutes of Johnston’s performance she proceeds onto the raised stage, causing us viewers to shift and move around once again. Arching backwards over the largest illuminated chasm, she continues her tactile gestures. Her hands touch her face, exploring eyes and mouth with meticulous detail, as if they belong to a blind person. This is the only time in the work when her eyes are noticeably open; although they still do not see. They look at us, blinded by light. She is bent backwards over this crevice in a manner that looks uncomfortable. She seems to embody the discomfort and fragility of age. Her teeth appear to crumble like the tissues did previously, creating a collage of gestural movement. The light hits her skin, giving it a translucent quality. She exits through a door at he back of the stage and we are left in confusion. It is over or do we follow her? 

Her performance seems to be about openings, both of the room and in her own body. The holes in the floor are flaws of the room, just as her orifices are points of weakness and vulnerability in the body. Correspondingly, it seems fitting when one audience member opens the door, following her out into the cold. She concluded the performance in the outside space of the yard, entangling herself in the dense vines and wild plants. (Later, I learn that she intended the end to be inside, but continued after the audience followed her out.)

The impression of the light in her blind eyes is, to me, the most haunting image from this performance. I am left with the feeling that Johnston creates from a place outside the visual realm. She is primarily feeling the space, hearing the space and smelling the space, while vision is an afterthought, an accidental way of sensing. This blindness imagery was juxtaposed with Johnston’s use of light as an object, a sculptural entity within the space. Although she appeared to be feeling her way through the space she was also drawn towards the three light sources in the room, like a moth to a flame. 

Johnston’s concentration on alternative senses to vision is in keeping with her philosophy of creation. Her interest is in genuine movement and expression, instead of making arresting aesthetic moments which read like visual snapshots. This is in opposition to a visual art sensibility in which bodily performances such a ballet craft a series of static positions. Even within movement she places value on the tactility of the space. Sensorial awareness is privileged over aesthetics, experimentation over rehearsal.

After the interview I return to the concise but brief program notes and am struck by how accurately the last sentence describes my experience talking to Johnston. “[Her] work often retains the fragility of weighing out new thoughts, remaining unapologetically inclusive of all the doubts and disjunction which invade the human capacity to respond honestly to any given moment.” While chatting with her, post performance, I was struck by her simultaneous concern and interest over the perceptions of the audience and her seemingly contradictory acceptance of their confusion or silence. She is comfortable with various interpretations, which may be a reason for the rather general artist statement. Her untitled Toronto performance allows room for interpretation and suggests a comfortability with a lack of control of its purpose and meaning. Just as the spectators are left to negotiate themselves through the space (eventually determining a new ending to the work) we are also left to interpret its meaning as autonomous viewers. She is not afraid that people will be confused by it and seems to welcome my questions, clarifying and explaining as we progress in the conversation. She describes the immediate reception of the work as a “positive silence.” That perception is left unresolved is none of Johnston’s concern. I imagine that in another life she continues her process in the Free Gallery, evolving with the neighbourhood, breathing in its essence, gathering layers of its character through the human behaviour of its inhabitants. 

Worked Cited:

Bonder, Julian. (2009) “On Memory, Trauma, Public Space, Monuments, and Memorials” Places, 21(1). Retrieved from: http://escholarship.org/uc/item/4g8812kv

Connerton, Paul. (1989) How Societies Remember. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Jones, Amelia. (1997) “’Presence’ in Absentia: Experiencing Performance as Documentation” Art Journal, 56(4). 11-18.

Emma Doran is in the PhD program in Communication and Culture at Ryerson University. Her previous work as Archival Associate for Dance Collection Danse has sparked her interest in constructions of radical bodies through language and is the impetus for her dissertation, entitled “The Avantgarde Body in Dance Performance Criticism: The Case of Maud Allan’s Salomé.” As a writer, Emma has contributed publications to The Dance Current and Dance Collection Danse Press/es.

Ritual Communication and Body Doubles: Attending (to) the Work of Monika Günther and Ruedi Schill 

Art… can take the sound of the sea, the intonation of a voice, the texture of a fabric, the design of a face, the play of light upon a landscape, and wrench these ordinary phenomena out of the backdrop of existence and force them into the foreground of consideration. (Carey 24)

Monika Günther and Ruedi Schill have been making performances together since 1995. They became collaborators after having established solo practices as individual artists. Ruedi, who is Swiss, began making work in the mid-1970s, exploring photography, music and Super-8 film as well as performance actions. Monika, born in Germany, began as a painter in 1966, finding her way into performance in 1981 out of a desire for a more direct connection with an audience. Now the two artists live and work as a couple, splitting their time between Lucerne, Switzerland and Essen, Germany. In addition to their performances as a duo, they organize an international festival each year in Giswil, Switzerland, as well as conducting performance art workshops on a regular basis.

As collaborators, Monika and Ruedi develop their performances in a symbiotic fashion. Rather than creating shared actions, they each build their own sets of gestures that they present simultaneously within a mutually agreed upon framework. Ruedi’s working method reveals a minimalist sensibility, inspired largely by his observations of people. He meticulously hones the structures of his art until they are reduced to what seems essential. Monika, on the other hand, whose process often involves extensive reading, likens the way her ideas develop to pregnancy: a mysterious gestation filled with uncertainty and expectation until a flash of inspiration suddenly bursts forth fully formed.

Creating work together as a duo benefits both artists. One obvious advantage is that they are able to explore ideas and discover understandings that might not have been possible working alone. Another significant factor, however, is the way in which their partnership helps to alleviate the letdown that often occurs after a performance, when the direct contact with the audience has dissipated. Ruedi in particular has spoken about how he often felt quite depressed and isolated after doing solo performances. Working with Monika allows the connection to the performance to continue without becoming nostalgic, since there is someone to review it with, and to offer another point of view.

Although Monika and Ruedi follow independent processes, they maintain an ongoing dialogue – before, during and after the performance – that requires an awareness and sensitivity to the other’s investigations and directions. Monika and Ruedi’s work together, as it has evolved, involves process-oriented performance actions that rely on improvisational elements within a predetermined structure. They seek a state of concentrated reflection that can generate or expose the intensity and complexity of the moments they share with an audience. Speaking about their performance workshops, Monika says, “We accompany the students, we don’t teach” (Movement Museum); and perhaps the same could be said of the duo’s performances. Monika and Ruedi seem less concerned with delivering specific messages than with providing each other and their audiences with an intensely present companionship while undertaking a series of slow, quiet gestures. What is evident in their work is an attention to communication as a form of ritual.

In his book Communication As Culture, James W. Carey, following the work of the American psychologist and philosopher John Dewey, notes two distinct understandings of the word ‘communication’: one, based on the notion of ‘transmission’; the second, on the notion of ‘ritual’. The ‘transmission’ view reflects an understanding of communication as a way of sending messages across some distance. The ‘ritual’ view – which, Carey asserts, “exploits the ancient identity and common roots of the terms ‘commonness,’ ‘communion,’ ‘community,’ and ‘communication’….is directed not toward the extension of messages in space but toward the maintenance of society in time; not the act of imparting information but the representation of shared beliefs.” (Carey 18)

At first glance, Carey’s use of the word ‘representation’ may seem misleading. In his definition, representation refers not to the translation of a referent into a code that can be transmitted from one location to another, but rather, to a grounding in the mutual affirmation – or, returning to Monika and Ruedi’s performance methods, in the concurrent yet independent discovery by artists and audience – of shared value. In this understanding, communication is that which manifests through actions of being and doing rather than that which creates or maps a particular path of connection. Monika and Ruedi’s work attempts to be communicative not by acting out roles that have particular predetermined or symbolic meanings attached to them, but by setting up conditions in time and space that will allow the performers and audience to discover what common set of questions become apparent. To suggest that Monika and Ruedi’s performances are ritually communicative, however, is not to guarantee a consensus of experience among all who are present. What is shared – and therefore communicated – is the willingness to test an action’s value, not a single or authorial interpretation of an action’s meaning. This suggests an alteration of Carey’s definition, since what I am describing is not so much the maintenance of a society in time as the production of a temporary social whole.

Part of what is at stake in making this claim for Monika and Ruedi’s work is a battle between whether performance art is better understood as ‘presentation’ – which emphasizes its qualities as productive, originary, live and a thing-in-itself – or as ‘representation’ – suggesting that it functions as a depiction or portrayal whose critical function is to reproduce a particular message or set of meanings. This tension – for one might reasonably ask whether either understanding can be ‘present’ without the other – forms one of the key and ongoing dialectics of performance as a medium.

Peggy Phelan has argued that to the extent that performances offer the live and shared presence of artist and audience as their essential material, performance as a genre is concerned with revealing subjectivity. Performances therefore rely on a metonymic function of the body; that is, the performer’s live body must stand in for or represent the larger concept of our subjectivity. In so doing, according to Phelan, part of what performance ultimately reveals is the incompleteness of the metonymic relationship, the fact that there is always something more required – the performance itself – to constitute and make visible this presence and being of which our bodies are only a part. What is brought into focus is a lack. She writes:

In performance, the body is metonymic of self, of character, of voice, of “presence.” But in the plenitude of its apparent visibility and availability, the performer actually disappears and represents something else – dance, movement, sound, character, “art.”… [T]he very effort to make the… body appear involves the addition of something other than “the body.” That “addition” becomes the object of the spectator’s gaze, in much the way the supplement functions to secure and displace the fixed meaning of the (floating) signifier. Just as [the] body remains unseen as “in itself it really is,” so too does the sign fail to reproduce the referent. Performance uses the performer’s body to pose a question about the inability to secure the relation between subjectivity and the body per se; performance uses the body to frame the lack of Being promised by and through the body – that which cannot appear without a supplement. (Phelan 150-151)

I agree with Phelan that in a performance, the spectator is generally watching something more than or perhaps even other than the performer’s body. When we watch a stage performer, for example, we might more precisely say that what we are watching is something we call ‘acting’ or ‘dancing’; we are listening not to the musician so much as the music being made. And in the case of many types of performance art work, the performer’s gestures often seem to come with the implicit directive, “Don’t look at me; look at what I am doing.” But I am not sure that this points us toward lack. Certainly if we understand communication according to a transmission model, then a performance may appear to configure itself as a mechanism that produces a set of signs of lived experience that cannot hope to reproduce themselves securely (across space) in the lived experiences of the witnesses-as-receivers. Approached according to a ritual model, however – and remembering that the performance necessarily includes the audience as well as the ‘performers’ – a performance becomes a set of lived experiences (through time) encompassing all of those who are present. Taken together, these lived experiences that we usually recognize as belonging to the individual body-bound subjectivities of performers and spectators also embody not only the performance, but also a (however temporary) social whole. Surely this is precisely why attending a live event is valued differently from viewing or listening to a recording or document. We gather together not so much to receive a particular message as to participate in its activation. In the space and time of the performance, the bodily lack we seek to address concerns not our individual subjectivity so much as our sense of belonging to a collectivity. Live performance, then, asks the audience to participate in the establishment, recognition, affirmation or maintenance of a social body.

This leads us to the question of what is meant by participation, particularly since the relationship Monika and Ruedi set up with the audience appears quite traditional. As the performers, they ‘do’ the actions. The audience members watch and listen. This suggests a role for the audience more as observer than participant.

Observation, a word whose Latin roots point to a notion of looking or watching, is often associated with a sense of detachment or remoteness. Vision as a sense has been linked to both passivity and impassiveness; it shows us a view that takes place somewhere outside of us, at a distance. At the same time, sight has been theorized as acquisitive and inflaming of desire. Against these understandings is a notion that hearing is more closely aligned with belonging, because we cannot ‘turn away’ our hearing as we can our sight. Hans-Georg Gadamer further links hearing to language: “Whereas all the other senses have no immediate share in the universality of the verbal experience of the world, but only offer the key to their own specific fields, hearing is an avenue to the whole because it is able to listen to the logos.” (Gadamer 458) In his view, hearing is the most ‘hermeneutic’ of the senses – relying on dialogue and interpretation to become meaningful. Gadamer’s thesis relies heavily on a correspondence between thought and words, and on a trust in the self-consciousness of language. Yet his ideas on the essential character of hearing seem unconvincing in an age when sound has become infinitely recordable. Digital reproduction, and the merging of sound and vision in contemporary technologies – think of MTV – have made sound a key component of consumer culture and a driving force of spectacle. Sound, like vision, appears immanently adaptable to a transmission model of communication.

What is evident in Monika and Ruedi’s work, however, is the potential for both hearing and sight to function hermeneutically. On the level of hearing, the performers begin with a request for silence, calling attention to listening as an active contribution to – and requisite element of – the performance. In this situation, silence should not be understood as an absence of sound, but as an enacted element of a dialogue. This active listening, undertaken by the performers as well as the audience, requires a silence that is both dialogic and interpretive – if not ‘speaking’ louder than words, it nevertheless constitutes participation within a ritual form of communication. And it could be argued that in Monika and Ruedi’s performances, hearing is at least as important as seeing.

At the same time, I would argue that the ‘seeing’ the performers seek to invoke is no less hermeneutic, dialogic or interpretive, nor is it less effective in contributing to ritual communication. Monika and Ruedi’s performances eschew the objectifying gaze of consumption in favour of a search for what one might call a sight of recognition. To do this, they rely on a number of key elements. Their actions are slow, rhythmic and repetitive. To watch what they are doing for an extended period of time, we must relax the fast-paced, acquisitive aspect of our gaze, and give up any expectations of sudden surprise. The performers’ manner is unassuming. The picture they create is unspectacular, avoiding any excesses of either sumptuousness or discord. Monika and Ruedi dress in ordinary black clothes, sit in ordinary chairs, and manipulate either their hands (in Fait-à-la-main) or small, visually unremarkable items (a stone turtle and an hourglass set in Silence). They do not appear to want to impress us with their physical prowess, or the virtuosity of their actions. Nor do they play a role; they act as themselves. The room in which the works are performed is equally unremarkable: neither cavernously large nor distractingly intimate. In other words, they do not appear to be interested in any of the trappings of spectacle.

The lighting in the space similarly guides us toward a particular way of seeing. In these performances, the bodies of the audience members are lit with the same intensity as those of Monika and Ruedi. The performers can see what we are doing as well as we can see their actions. So, like us, Monika and Ruedi become viewers. But they do not stare at us, nor are we encouraged to stare at them. Instead, our –that is, both the performers’ and the audience’s – focus is drawn primarily to the actions and objects that the performers’ hands display. This view is equally open to interpretation by all present, and the audience must work with the artists to make meaning from the events constituted or precipitated by what we are observing. We are all witnesses, coming together to experience these simple gestures as an event, to share together the time of the performance’s occurrence, to contribute our respective silences, and to collectively affirm the authenticity of the actions through our presence.

There is another aspect of the way in which we are called to witness, however, that I believe enhances its hermeneutic potential and at the same time nudges us beyond a feeling of lack toward the recognition of communion, of something held in common. This stems from the formal composition of parallel gestures presented in Monika and Ruedi’s work. The artists undertake simultaneous actions that are complementary, but not identical; attuned to each other, but oriented outward toward the audience. And because audience members witness two sets of gestures at once, we have a chance to experience a depiction that is not so much a mirroring as a doubling. There is of course always a ‘doubling’ in the relationship of one to another – of artist to audience, of me to you – as we are led to acknowledge our own subjectivity in relation to an other.  But what does it mean to witness this second doubling – that of the two performers?

The relationship between audience and performer may sometimes be understood as a process of ‘identification’ – the notion that audience members imaginatively place themselves in the position of the performer. This process of identification is often theorized as being linked to what Lacan posited as the ‘mirror stage’ – a developmental point critically tied to the development of the ego in which children ‘misrecognize’ their mirror images as being superior to their bodily selves. Laura Mulvey used this premise to help lay the groundwork for her theory of Hollywood cinema as perpetuating a male gaze. In relation to Lacan’s theory, she writes:

The mirror phase occurs at a time when the child’s physical ambitions outstrip his motor capacity, with the result that his recognition of himself is joyous in that he imagines his mirror image to be more complete, more perfect than he experiences his own body. Recognition is thus overlaid with mis-recognition: the image recognised is conceived as the reflected body of the self, but its misrecognition as superior projects this body outside itself as an ideal ego, the alienated subject, which, re-introjected as an ego ideal, gives rise to the future generation of identification with others. (Mulvey 9-10)

Certainly Monika and Ruedi do not offer themselves up as larger-than-life screen figures. The actions they perform could be done by almost any able human body. Their movements are simple, and minimal, leveling the relationship between the artists as ‘performers’ and those present as audience. Further, Monika and Ruedi’s comportment seems designed not to telegraph too much emotionally or symbolically – though it might be possible to read distinct personality traits into their respective rhythms, body positions or breathing patterns. But these aspects of the performance are not the only ones working against the possibility of the audience slipping into a desiring, consuming or misrecognizing gaze.

As an audience trying to reconcile the ‘doubling’ constituted by two simultaneous actions, we may begin by distinguishing traditional binaries – male/female; Swiss/German; logical/intuitive; mechanical/organic; heavy/light and so forth – and be drawn toward identifying with whichever qualities best match our self-understanding. But any close attention to these apparent organizing principles soon reveals a host of inconsistencies and contradictions. The binaries do not maintain their stability. Differences and similarities prevail: not one image, but always multiple and simultaneous ones, unified in the time and space of the performance, in the bodies of artists and audience, and in the actively constructed relationships among all of us. I can place myself imaginatively in the position of either of the performers, or I can try to take in the scene as a whole, but none of these positions remains static. The artists’ actions transform as they unfold – in response to each other, to the audience, to the environment, to the forces inherent in their individual trajectories – just as our focus as individual audience members shifts from one artist to the other, or to our own bodies’ roles in this active engagement with the moment. The performers’ doubling gives us an automatic and complex plurality of views, which challenge us to test our own ‘given’ understandings, and perhaps even our sense of self. We are thus led toward an interrogation of the secureness of our identifications and potential misrecognitions.

Notions of mirroring and identification are bound up with an affirmation of the validity of an individuated subject, understood in psychoanalysis as the ‘ego’. Indeed, the concept of misrecognition can only exist if there is a mutually agreed upon boundary of objective recognition. In arguing that the performances of Monika and Ruedi attend to the possibility of ritual communication, I am suggesting that the real ‘work’ taking place through the event of the performance is the opening up of a space in which those who are present can reconfigure their boundaries of recognition. I characterize this process, at least in part, as an individuation that is more collective than individual; i.e., this reconfiguration generates a temporary social whole rather than reaffirming the isolation of the alienated self. And perhaps not surprisingly, the mechanics of this process appear to me to operate outside the symbolic and imaginary orders that Lacan proposed were so essential to ego development. Ritual communication requires the situated time and space of the event – an idea affirmed by Gilles Deleuze.

A process of subjectification, that is, the production of a way of existing, can’t be equated with a subject, unless we divest the subject of any interiority and even any identity. Subjectification isn’t even anything to do with a “person”: it’s a specific or collective individuation relating to an event (a time of day, a river, a wind, a life…). It’s a mode of intensity, not a personal subject. It’s a specific dimension without which we can’t go beyond knowledge or resist power. (Deleuze 98-99)

Deleuze’s comments point to the significance of focusing on performance’s productive rather than representational qualities. They also suggest why it is useful to pay close attention to the ways in which Monika and Ruedi work. The time and space that they generate with their unassuming gestures is precisely the dimension in which it might be possible to “go beyond knowledge or resist power” in their institutionalized, monolithic and sedimented states.

Works Cited:

Carey, James W. Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society. London & New York: Routledge, 1992 [1988].

Deleuze, Gilles. Negotiations: 1972-1990. Trans. Joughin, Martin. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. (J. Weinsheimer & D.G. Marshall, Trans.) New York: Continuum. 1989 [1975].

Günther, Monika and Ruedi Schill. Artist talk at Viva! Art Action Festival, Montreal. September 26, 2009.

Günther, Monika and Ruedi Schill. Personal interview. September 19, 2009.

Günther, Monika and Ruedi Schill. Interviewers: Chris ‘Zeke’ Hand and Rachel Ni Chuinn. Movement Museum. CKUT 90.3 FM, Montreal. September 17, 2009. MP3 Download. “Movement Museum: Monika Günther, Ruedi Schill, Anne Bertrand, Pierre Rigal” Accessed on April 11, 2010.


The main body of this essay focuses on developing a theoretical understanding of the performer/audience dynamic I experienced as an audience member of Monika Günther and Ruedi Schill’s work. Although it includes details on the artists and their practice, and reflects my conversations with them, it could hardly be considered a review of the two performances hosted by FADO in September 2009. For those interested in a subjective description of the event, this ‘Appendix’ reproduces the notes I made during the performance.

The Cult of Delicate Glut: On Pleasure Addicts by Brenda Goldstein

Let us begin at the beginning. Glut is the primary word that comes to mind when describing the performative outputs of artist Brenda Goldstein. It must not, however overshadow the next.


Not delicate in the sense of subdued, fragile or frail. Rather: aerial, finespun, light as a feather. Brenda Goldstein is an artist whose practice takes on and picks apart layers of contemporary mythology: images of power are some of her favorites. In the case of Pleasure Addicts, she has again created a delicate glut of images. This output, like previous ones, asserts; the dominant media beast rolls over and shows its underbelly, rendering himself vulnerable, open, and submissive. But one does not get to scratch the belly of this beast by force. One must be strategic. Perhaps even a bit delicate. Pleasure Addicts is a messy hybrid. Goldstein developed this ten-hour multi-media performance project over a period of two years. Early on in the process, she consulted with other women artists who also work in performance. These artists were asked to develop a character in response to their own experiences as women. Throughout the development the focus moved away from these fictional characters and towards the crafting of honest responses to the contradictory and problematic imagery of women offered by contemporary spectacle. The group actually began with dance in music video format. They improvised with loaded objects together. They undertook a workshop with artist Misha Glouberman. After many hours of discussion and action, Goldstein scripted interactions for the performers to interpret based on the characters to whom they were drawn. These characters had now become individual persona devices for the ten performers to present in concert together during a festival of orgiastic excess in Toronto, CA at Toronto Free Gallery presented in part by Fado Performance Inc. While men have assisted in the creation of Pleasure Addicts, there are no men in this performance. The collective nature of this project bolsters its own feminist logic, structure and strength. It reflects working methodologies that Goldstein takes up regularly, and are the backbone of her creative process—research, consultation and collaboration. The simple act of collaboration among women artists towards a feminist project is a re-empowering one. Personal agendas quickly collapse and evaporate into a singular agency that defies traditional definitions of authority. These women have created their own world;one where they live, suffer the consequences of their mistakes, and die. They have each painted themselves into a personal corner, but not to be forsaken, forgotten. They have temporarily relocated to eke out an existence that embodies the very fears and limitations that underlie a shallow, delicate, daily sheen. Today’s the message is blended well: forceful and blasé, hot and cold, yes and no. “He’s just not that into you” is a line from a 2003 Sex and the City episode. In 2004, a consultant and writer for the show, Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo, teamed up to write a book with the same name. Just in time for Valentine’s Day in 2009, Warner Brothers released the movie version, featuring Ben Affleck, Jennifer Aniston, Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Connelly, Ginnifer Goodwin, Scarlett Johansson and a handful of B-list male actors as their elusive would-be paramours. The first sentence of the synopsis found on The Internet Movie Database summarizes the plot: “Since the age of 5, Gigi has been told that when men act like jerks, it means they like her.”

The marketing tagline is an equally paradoxical question mark for imaginary women to consider as they wait for the phone to ring:“Are you the exception – or the rule?” Like the Sex and the City line, the book and the title of the film, this question targets a general ‘you’ and imposes a judgment. Which category do you fall into? Is that your final answer? The story—women experiencing ongoing interconnected miscommunications with men—is subservient to the reinforcement of pop culture’s ethereal female (this person or group of people called ‘you’) whose inner wish is to be first in line to be satisfied with second-best, with a maybe. Pleasure Addicts uses this brand of marketing language, and its related concepts, images and tools to propose a closer look at the “real” story.


On one hand, Pleasure Addicts is a messy version of feminine existence on a bad hair day. On the other hand it is life, or more accurately, actual lives lived out in front of our eyes. Its formal aspects and collaborative nature reflect a need today to continually redefine feminist expression. Our opponent (contemporary spectacle) is strong and pervasive. One compelling example of today is reality porn or ‘humilitainent’, a new phenomenon with a foothold in the Internet. For the tenth anniversary of Bitch Magazine, writer, Shauna Swartz was invited to provide her perspective on this developing form of pornography:

“In most places, paying for sex is illegal, that is, unless you document the transaction and sell the footage on the Internet. And if you show an attractive young woman, enticed by promises of cash, having sex with a complete stranger in a public setting—only to be kicked to the curb afterward with no pay and plenty of insults—chances are your porn site will be very, very popular…What distinguishes this new smut from its predecessors isn’t whether the action is scripted, but whether it’s portrayed as nonconsensual.”(4)

This coded documentation of what appears to be nonconsensual sex is wrought with questions. This web document shows part of a life lived by a woman. Swartz notably points out the link between this document and its creation. “The question of authenticity overshadows the sexual politics of why a woman might be willing to play the dupe, and any law-enforcement fixation on its social demerit misses the point that pop culture reflects the popular imagination at least as much as creates it.”(5)

In order for Swartz’ analysis to be useful in the reading of Pleasure Addicts, we must take it one step further. Yes, pop culture is a perfect machine. It absorbs popular imagination, brings it into being, and then even enables its dissemination and proliferation into the world. But what is pop culture capable of candidly saying about the lives of real women? Reality porn and He’s just not that into you (in all its iterations) are cultural events which present two aesthetic sides of the same wooden nickel: the women depicted have been handed the metaphorical supporting role with no time to practice their lines, let alone the opportunity to decline the offer. Assigned this obligatory part, how might one play it? As Nurse Feelgood, Pleasure Addicts prescribes a number of repetitive reactions to this question, to be taken in cycles over ten hours. Each image has its own aftereffect:

Check your Blackberry®

Eat/drink/sedate/stimulate yourself into oblivion

Pass out

Kill yourself or another, ideally your Frienemy


Do it again

…That’s Life

As an artistic mode, performance is a well-adjusted, rational response to our bizarre existence. Pleasure Addicts is powerful because it is what Dutch art critic Sven Lütticken might call a problematical fact of life: “…the performative spectacle gives birth to an ecological utopia in which all fundamental problems have been magically solved. But performance is not a solution or a promise; it is an obstinate and problematical fact. Only if we avoid presenting today’s culture of performance as a prelude to utopia and instead acknowledge its normative character, is there a chance of art performance instigating little ‘truth-events’ that highlight tiny fissures in the performative spectacle, and so raise the possibility of a more fundamental break with it.” (6) Goldstein’s formulation is not guiding us towards a utopia. At top speed, it is sending us careening off the bridge and into the glittering cold water below.

The more a moment is captured in images, the more that moment and those images become frozen in mass imagination. Those who witness the event have it burned into their retinas. Those who didn’t see the event have documentation (extensive or blurry) upon which they must rely. What does a ten-hour performative output like Pleasure Addicts accomplish more effectively than the slowing down and opening of real time? Perhaps Goldstein has offered us a spectacular breach: a few moments to regain consciousness, to come to our senses. Can we buy some time until the world has become a better place for women? We have ten hours.


(1) In 2007, Goldstein and I co-created spin, a video installation which unravels the role of women in the crafting of history through three performances. For me, this collective production and presentation process was a powerful exploration of the particular risks, challenges and generosities involved when women work together on a feminist project.

(2) The Internet Movie Database, “He’s Just Not That Into You,” http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1001508/

(3) ibid.

(4) Shauna Swartz, “XXX Offender: Reality Porn and the Rise of Humilitainment,” in bitchfest: Ten Years of Cultural Criticism from the Pages of Bitch Magazine (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004), 318.

(5) ibid, 321.

(6)Sven Lütticken, “Progressive Striptease: Performance Ideology Past and Present,” in Secret Publicity: Essays on Contemporary Art (Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, The Netherlands, 2005), 178.

Wall against Wall against Wall: Art and Cultural Boycott

I have taken on a rather horrible task: to discuss the matter of the campaign to impose a cultural boycott on Israel from a personal perspective of an artist and curator. In recent days I feel sorry for making that silly decision. What a headache. In fact, I considered writing a very short article consisting of only one sentence: “leave me alone, I wanna go away, take a rest from this dusty old screwed up Middle East, get some attention (well, alright, from those five people who actually show up to see performance art), recharge my libido and satisfy my curiosity, and let me assure you that I am a moral person and an advocate of human rights etc. etc.” But apparently that would not be enough, nor would it be the absolute truth: lately I am a bit tired of art and people, the libido is not doing brilliantly, and frankly, I’m not so sure that deep inside I’m a completely moral person as I would like to believe. Still, since I made the commitment, I will nevertheless try to wear a mask of analytic seriousness for a moment.

In the past few years I mainly travel to meet my own ignorance. The more I travel, the more ignorant I become. Cities and countries I have read about on the internet break down into countless states of consciousness. Conversations with people reveal to me the great contradictions behind concepts and presumptions. Meanwhile and simultaneously, the body functions in a framework of artistic convention – performance art. Deriving from an encounter (with another person, a place, a space), performance art always contains an element of potential breach, the ability to be immediate and move with unanticipated temporal conditions, or lose control altogether. The body transmits frequencies, not always clear even to itself, and these frequencies incorporate the accumulated psychophysical froth as it suddenly meets an unknown space.  And then I come back home, to Tel Aviv. In rare moments of openness, I also discover the ignorance of that which is right under my nose. An unfamiliar neighbor I accidentally run into shows me that even my own neighborhood, where I have been staying for ten years, is a lost Atlantis.

Tel Aviv tries to pretend it is a normal city. War always looms in the background, occasionally invading in the form of terrorist bombings. This country is a winding crack in a particularly dense historical vision. Anyone who seeks a concise lesson in an impossible assembly of clichés – on issues of nationality, religion, colonialism, utopia, conquests, holocausts, grotesque identities born of catastrophe, wars of civilizations and sub-civilizations and sub-sub-civilizations – is welcome to come here. The bottom line is that people are mostly struggling with themselves. In short, welcome to the Ghost of the West; to the drain hole of everything that refuses to become repressed.

As we know, that delirious seam likes to occasionally combust and display spectacles of mass killings that may have not reached their pinnacle yet. The effect on the artist, living inside this existence and taking part in all flavors of the contemporary global culture is  two-fold: first there is the tendency to covertly or explicitly encourage standard and easily-digestible political maxims that are either “pro-Israeli” or “pro-Palestinian”, as if this was a soccer match, in order to assimilate into the western, and particularly West European cultural arena; and secondly there is the threat of a cultural boycott – the application of which being thus far limited, though there is evidence of its gradual strengthening in recent years in indirect and camouflaged ways. On rare occasions, curators in conversation with me choose to boldly and frankly share the complexities of this issue (for example, Shannon Cochrane, curator of FADO, Performance Art Centre in Toronto, following the conversation with whom I am writing these words).

The famous cliché goes that “everything is political”. And that is largely true. But firstly and foremost, anything political is also emotional, psychological, and a reflection of consciousness trying to delineate separate identities by projecting onto some kind of an imagined “other”. There are those who still insist on conserving a position of relative sanity, and who aim to establish an artistic strategy that is not only influenced by the political but that mainly strives to radically expose the apparatus of consciousness behind the political – the same mechanism that always seeks to construct a separate and “just” identity in the name of some agenda. The resulting art does not really need, if it doesn’t wish, to commit to those readymade political and moral ideas at the price of over-simplification – especially in a place where reality is incredibly intricate. It illuminates an existence within a flawed and relative world, and perhaps, in rare moments, can mark a window to a dimension where those fortified boundaries of consciousness are blurred, if only in the slightest. At its best, this kind of art soberly testifies to its own limitations, out of sincerity and questioning.

And yet, reality: Israel-Palestine has a continuous reality of occupation and oppression of Palestinians, war with external Islamic factors, severe internal polarization and trampling capitalism. There is a silent majority busy with its daily survival, extremists and fear-ridden people of every type, alongside experimental cultural phenomena that are varied and surprising, and that reflect progressive post-national civil values. These contradictions often co-exist as a confusing whirlpool on the level of the individual. It is always interesting to discover, both here in Israel and anywhere else, people who deconstruct their own identities and who find out they are not complete saints nor complete sinners; people who know they are not absolute individuals, and that they are a part – whether they like it or not – of a system of social belonging, propaganda and counter-propaganda; that they live in a world of identities and murderous self-interests of every kind. Sometimes art is able to observe all this and generate a degree of distance, though small, where it can then meet all sorts of very imperfect people from many places in the world.

There are those who like their art attached to clear cut moral values. It’s their right. I try to focus on one rule only: dealing with representation. It is there that we are allowed to reflect each and every destructive and unresolved contradiction. At the end of the day, this is only a game of self-awareness. If this game works correctly and deeply, it does not lead to nihilism but to a state where people are sharing their limitations with other people. Ultimately, this process of exposure can evoke a new sensitivity. Inside this relative reality, it seems there is much to learn particularly from artists from conflict-ridden countries. The list of killings, occupations, exploitations, human rights violations and industries of intimidation under various justifications, is long and includes dozens of states. I wouldn’t want to boycott American and British artists following the mass killings in Iraq; nor would I want to boycott Russian artists following the killing of civilians in Chechnya and Georgia; nor Chinese artists following the occupation of Tibet; I would also gladly meet an Iranian artist, even if they support the destruction of the imperialistic Zionists – they would apparently have just reasons to think like that from their point of view. I would happily meet every artist from near and far corners of the Earth that I may have read a column or two about, without sifting through their moral values based on my own previous assumptions; they need not produce readymade anti-war clichés in advance (even if I myself have a personal preference to mingle with all kinds of lefties, some radical activists and some complete pacifists. There too, of course, paradoxical inner contradictions may arise – the demand for “freedom” that creates another wall and countless enemies).

Seemingly, most of the campaign’s supporters claim they only intend to boycott artists supported by Israeli public institutions, and not independent artists. Here too, when rummaging through the work of this or that person, one may find a deep ocean of a very impure reality. Like any citizen, artists everywhere support mechanisms of order and power with their tax money ; they feed at one point or another, directly or otherwise, on public funds and the local machine of economy – through systems of education, cultural production and distribution. Many cultural phenomena that carry a “subversive” value ultimately feed off, and perhaps not incidentally, the existing power structures – within which are the dialectics of both centre and fringe, conflicting interests, conservation of oppressive order and its undermining. Academic and cultural work with the apparent agenda of dismantling power structures is supported by public funds on one level or another. Even more radical fringe activity grows and branches out of that same food chain. Many paradoxes that are hard to swallow exist within this endless arena of brawl. There are some who think that to relinquish the public resource arena, in the name of some illusion of purity, is actually an act of desperate political nihilism. In short, the attempt to quantify and simplify these many complicated phenomena is a bottomless pit; it demands the willingness to sink in the depths of deep contradictions that the eye cannot easily see. Fans of purity could come down with intense paranoia. Sure, the debate on boundaries on this matter is necessary and healthy, only in many cases it may be best to expose it for its proximity to being shallow, arrogant and hypocritical; to perpetuating existing power structures in the name of the rhetoric of purity.

Of course one cannot be naive and deny the fact that everything is tied into a system of power relations. One might boycott Israeli artists and not those who come from international superpowers. Absurdly enough, this position debilitates those Israeli factors that still attempt, in the midst of a sea of fear and despair, to believe in a reality of an equal and secular civil society and in the possibility of ending the occupation; those same factors that conduct daily and fragile networks of civil collaborations and who express resistance to a forceful and deaf policy. The civil achievements made here despite everything cannot be taken for granted when blood still trickles down the streets, and there is far more delicate and sensitive work to be done in the face of the domineering extremes. Can the threat of cultural boycott drastically change the opinions of those who, thinking critically and compassionately, understand that the causes and reasons for war in history and in the human mind are plural and complex? Moreover, do these threats only intensify a state of deep-seated cynicism and nihilism? Will populist comparisons to Apartheid in South Africa help people understand the specifically profound circumstances of the nightmare they are living in, even as fierce critics of the state they are citizens of? There are many types of misery, oppression and tragic circumstance in the world, and here too God is in the small and inconvenient details. Those who think that boycott will contribute to a quick fix of the conflict are warmly invited to dip in this boiling concoction, the one that leaves little room for illusions of speedy salvation. Conversely, those who consider boycott part of a total ban on the existence of the state of Israel do not need this discussion. For them, we could end here, in mutual understanding. And indeed, there are those who think that people born in unjust locales must eradicate their very core and take personal liability, for example, for the outcomes of a bleeding Jewish-Christian-Muslim history and of oppressive colonialism. From these undoers of history, at most, we can politely ask for passports to kingdoms of pure justice.

Trying to simplify the situation in Israel is akin to trying to exorcise the demons of a many factored global conflict, and fetishistically focusing it on one point; it is a purist attempt at denying those, of all people, with the capacity to reflect the suffocating odors of this volcanic pit as a product of a historic nightmare with singularly entangled roots. Needless to say, many people have strong feelings for this story, because it reflects something deep that they connect with. In the cultural-artistic context, this uncomfortable discourse needs to remain open to interpretation. Humans do not choose to be born in certain places. Artists may at least try and give testimony of those places with their tools of expression. In the field of art, this is, most importantly, about the freedom to give conflicting testimonies.

Potentially, art can enter twilight areas that are difficult to address directly. Through this exploration, the deep symbiosis of narratives is discovered, the inseparable reciprocities. The barrel of blood is underneath all. Untwining the roots of catastrophe can cross many identities on the way to the futile attempt at locating some “Original Sin”. The “other” is always a nightmarish projection of a process of denial of self. Any attempt to remotely create a projection of ideas of sin and sacredness onto groups, to create a flat abstraction of “Israelis”, “Palestinians”, or any other group, creates more war. In reality, identities are dynamic things that include very many sub-groups and contradictions; they constantly fight and assimilate into each other in a kind of a destructive erotic impulse that creates new pairings. That is one of the greatest jokes on this planet, and it looks like we’re going to keep laughing until it explodes.

The Israeli-Palestinian situation is only a small test case for a much larger question to do with the cross-cultural encounter between identities in crisis in a wide cultural context. There is no specific characteristic here that relates specifically to performance art, other than one essential fact: performance art is a form that represents, above all else, a live and immediate communication, a breach, a process, becoming and being in conditions of unpredictable encounters. The mere structural principle of international performance art events assumes a political disposition, and is sometimes much more important than any political content in the work itself. One clear and obvious factor can be identified within this process: the more funding a body of art receives, the more pressure it faces to represent a “worthy” discourse. In that context, some emphasize the affinity between performance art events and cultural activism that deals with solidifying temporary international communities, usually at minimum financial means or any direct political dependencies. The conception of performance art as a low-means field that relies on the body alone, with no commercial value or serious public impact, usually allows in many cases for greater liberty. In this, the pressure on artists to produce a fashionable and defined discourse is clearly lifted. Ultimately, this is a recurring pattern in many activities of contemporary global culture networks, and we need not categorically isolate the performance art field from a wider context; it is already woven through with the elaborate activities of individuals in numerous systems – in the arts, academics, social-cultural activism and more.

When all is said and done, action that involves threats of boycott only forces people to find alternative ways, out of the understanding that the existing power structures had already been corrupt by positioning a wall against existing walls. Above all else, any cultural-political act with a spark of vitality deals not only with criticism but with establishing a new human reality; in a passing instant of willingness to forget all the hopeless and exhausting accountings of guilt, blood and body counts. So perhaps we – the imperfect people, infested with contradictions – may see something new, in the flicker of a moment, beyond the smokescreen. 

Yaron David (b. 1970, Israel) works in video and performance art. He is also a curator and is active in the performance art scene in Tel Aviv, working with and organizing events with PAP (Performance Art Platform) including a monthly performance event (2004-2007), as well as the ZAZ International Performance Art Festival (2007, 2008). He is a writer and freelance editor, working with museums and cultural institutions. David’s work has been presented at international festivals in Israel, Crotia, UK, Finland, Istanbul, Poland, France and at the National Review of Live Art in Scotland, among other events and exhibitions. This will be David’s first appearance in North America.

A Response to Cellu(h)er Resistance
Leena Raudvee. Photo Miklos Legrady

Written in chalk on black staircase wall at XPACE:

she was a woman too rooted in the past, in the land, connected to the earth.
she brought the earth from her land from her home and kept it in a box in a
drawer with her most precious things. within reach. next to her bed.
Comfort. Strength. one small box enough to connect her to all the rest, her
history, her past, her home-country, her home-earth, her kodumaa. and she /
She carried it in her bucket, more and more, endless, never enough yet one
small box holding it all. and it covered her body and it fell on her face
and it soothed her breast /
Her breast. and she wouldn’t let go and she /
She kept moving the earth. Breaking new ground but grounded in the past.
over and over holding the earth and letting it go.
she was a warrior too. she /
She would /
could not forget.

Leena Raudvee. Photo Miklos Legrady

Leena Raudvee is a Toronto-based artist and curator. She has collaborated with Pam Patterson in the creation and presentation of performance and installation for over 20 years.

The Bush Inside: Cheryl L’Hirondelle Undresses ‘Nehayiwin’ with êkâya-pâhkaci (Don’t Freeze Up!) at the Toronto Free Gallery

Cheryl L’Hirondelle’s work is guided, informed, expressive of, illustrative of, translation for, involved in, and engaged with Nehayiwin, which may be roughly translated as “Cree world view”. It is a journey that began with her realization that she needed to go to the bush and “learn the [Cree] language”.[1]

L’Hirondelle works with many aspects and readings of Nehayiwin. One definition is ‘to be Cree.’ “As I have been learning and living Nehayiwin I have been impressed by how it is more relational than proprietary, and process-oriented rather than object-based. To say ninotem (my friend) – one is saying ‘the-friend-I-am-relational-to’, and in that, there are rules and responsibilities encoded. To approach and see from that point of view, then, everything is shifted and transformed so it’s not dissolution of what is, but a shift in perspective.”[2]

The ‘Nehi’ of Nehayiwin connects to a root word meaning ‘four,’ leading to a reading of Nehayiwin that bears the idea of ‘four-bodied beings.’ This provides a model of a human as not split, but a multiple being (body, mind, emotions, spirit).

“The ‘yiw’ [of Nehayiwin] means to sound the world view.”[3] “Central to my work in every discipline … is the whole notion of voice. I talk a lot about Nehayiwin, about the sense of sounding the world view.”[4]

These aspects of the language and Nehayiwin, where meaning is a matter of being in relation, where the idea of an original and isolated ego as the guarantor of meaning is syntactically and contextually impossible or ridiculous, where the language, meaning and relationships are braided in the world view, all provides her with the means of making good camp. Her camp, her performance, relies on tipi poles and sixteen traditional teachings associated with them.

Cheryl L’Hirondelle is a traveler. She moves as fast and light as her namesake, the swallow (hirondell noun, fr = swallow).[5] She can put up her camp in minutes. The camp is economical, made of only the necessary things, where every element performs more than one job. Objects are multi-bodied in this way.

L’Hirondelle presented her performance êkâya-pâhkaci (Don’t Freeze Up!) at the Toronto Free Gallery on Bloor Street West. Blankets were laid out to welcome whoever happened by, and she laid out bread, fruit and cookies. The presentation time was set for the evening, but the invitations said the gallery doors would be opened at noon. People came and went throughout the day. L’Hirondelle created a space and a time that altered the gallery; her camp prepared the space and the audience became a part of this process.

The performance area was established at the far end of the gallery by a white canvas tent flanked by two speakers on stands. The tent touched the high gallery ceiling. It was braced and supported by metals bars, and ropes secured these to the walls and ceiling. Lit from within, it glowed white, filling the gallery with soft ambient light, giving everyone and everything edgeless shadows.

Multi-coloured blankets covered the floor and food was laid out on the blankets. Each blanket was a different pattern and size, and suggested a unique event in the life of the collector. Here they said, “Sit down, relax, have something to eat.” Cookies, biscuits, cheese, berries…The blankets were arranged on the floor in a perfect grid, and as a group, at a 45 degree angle to the gallery walls. The space the blankets made was further enhanced by Cree syllabics drawn in chalk on the gallery floor following the edge of the blanket space. The syllabics suggested incantive inscriptions or “hobo writing … tagging”[6] marks that might transform a space and human arrangements. “The syllabics make an idea of Cree territory.”[7]

People gradually filled the gallery prior to the announced start time. L’Hirondelle, dressed casually in a skirt, boots and blouse, mixed with the crowd. Without announcement, she went to her tent and began sewing the entry flaps closed with a needle and thread. The audience gradually took notice and the hum of conversation dropped. Those closest to the action took seats on the blankets or arranged themselves along the walls. She took her time. The start of the action was definite but subtle.

Audience members, too shy to step on the blankets, slowly crept forward. At first they stuck to the walls, keeping to the strip of flooring the blankets left uncovered. Soon enough, though, the blankets were filled. L’Hirondelle stepped into the tent before completely sewing it closed, finishing the job from inside. With the tent sealed up, the light inside playfully threw her shadow around the tent walls, exaggerating and distorting her body, estranged, altered, differed from within, remaking her gestures and the space. Inside the tent, she danced, lifted and shook her foot, and even worked a hula hoop. Then she began a slow strip tease of shadows.

Inside the tent, using an array of audio equipment, L’Hirondelle began to loop and layer her voice, creating an improvised audio piece to go with her shadow play. The gallery walls melted as she danced her shadows on the tent walls. She worked with vocalizations and Cree. She spoke, sang, and spoke-sang. Her voices described the shapes and forms of a vast landscape. Her dance and the layered audio ended with what appeared to be a strip tease, a shadow-burlesque. The performance began with playful, teasing energy, but suddenly with the suggestion of nudity looming – sooner or later after all, she would have to emerge from the tent – somehow, it seemed deliberately out of place or out of pace with what she’d established thus far.

She stopped to push long pieces of ribbon through small slits in the canvas. Altogether sixteen. They recalled ribbon shirts and ceremonial garb. It was a slow and focused action made of smaller repeated actions. (Not being a Cree speaker, I later learn she was chanting he Cree words for the tipi pole teachings.) Approaching the tent flaps, her shadow shrunk from dream-time proportions back to human scale. She paused at the entrance, standing behind the ribbons as behind saplings in the woods. The audience knew what was to come next. Her shadow arms reached up. Her hands played with the opening. But just before she opened the screen, she poked one booted leg through the tent flap and waggled it. The children in the front row laughed. The room relaxed. She opened the tent with a strong gesture and stood revealed, arms spread wide. The entire back wall of the tent was mirrored, and the audience saw themselves looking. But she wasn’t naked; she wore a flesh-coloured (the hue was specific but thanks to the dark art of generalization, signified ‘skin’) ‘naked lady’ costume: so the joke was on us. Once the laughter subsided, she left her tent and walked among the seated audience, talking Cree with them, patient and charming. Then she returned to her tent, and began a call and response game, teaching the audience Cree. The energy was high and joyful.

During a storyteller residency in Northern Saskatchewan, Cheryl L’Hirondelle came upon a tipi pole teaching that has been informing her work ever since. Each of the sixteen poles that create the structure of a tipi (the array of poles meeting at the top resembles a swallow’s tail, fitting as L’Hirondelle literally means “the swallow” in French) represents a corresponding idea, value or teaching. In her performance, êkâya-pâhkaci, L’Hirondelle had written the Cree word for these teachings in chalk around the blankets on the gallery floor. [8][9]  She chanted the Cree words while pushing sixteen ribbons through slits in the wall of her tent, letting them roll out and hang in the front.

Obedience: learning by listening to know what is right or wrong.

Radical Inclusivity: “if we’re going to survive and make a cohesive camp we have to allow everyone to be present.”[10] The day before her performance, L’Hirondelle gave a presentation at the Ontario College of Art and Design. In order to articulate what she meant by radical inclusivity, she spoke about a word in Cree for a woman who’s “crazy-ish”, but not clinically. The word denoted someone in a camp that doesn’t do things in the regular way. “Didn’t have kids, did things alternately.”[11] L’Hirondelle wants to honour people who do things backwards. From her work in women’s prisons, she has said, “prison is full of people with gifts who don’t fit in.”[12] The character she emerges from her tent as draws on this. She likes to make mistakes: she sings too loud, she speaks a language few understand, she moves provocatively, she moves through the space unconcerned with normal boundaries. She may go wrong at any minute. But one felt no threat from her. As she’s said, It’s critical in a camp structure that endures that everyone will have a role, “even those who do things wrong or backwards.”[13]

A wall tent is a perfect all-weather shelter for a nomadic way of life.[14] Readily collapsible but sturdy, with a woodstove for heat and a hole in the top for the flue, it recalls a life on the land, the lives of a river people. ‘Nomadic’ is a misnomer, however, if by it one means rootlessness or homelessness joined to an idea of an earlier phase of cultural development… a people permanently wandering out of doors, sleeping wherever they happen to fall from exhaustion. L’Hirondelle’s imagery may be haunted, sure, but by imported ghosts with their own agendas. If you find you are unable to set yourself on the blanket, prepare yourself for a negative epiphany a la Sixth Sense: you may be the ghost of the camp, spinning cups and opening cupboard doors in feeble metaphysical protest. It’s a very open camp. Ghosts may find their place, too.

Respect: honouring each other’s basic rights.

L’Hirondelle makes a distinction between performance and theatre. In her view, theatre blocking – the placement of the actors, the set design, the mise en scène, “…manipulates the attention of the audience. In performance, the audience can look at whatever they want.”[15] This is the ‘antiheirarchal gaze’ of performance.[16] The cohesive or coherent camp is defined by radical inclusivity which means openness is a structural necessity. Its very existence relies on this. The right to be left alone[17] adheres to whomever or whatever arrives. “Radical Inclusivity is also non-humans as the ‘all of us.'”[18]

Humility: to understand our relationship with the Creator and creation.

On making a camp, one makes an announcement of humility: “I am here.”[19] It is an offer to whoever may be listening. It presupposes relationships, being-in-relation, a way of understanding oneself where solitude is not only meaningless but impossible, as all things are articulated within or through the play of relations. L’Hirondelle’s performance began with a visiting hours. The white canvas tent, lit from within, filled the space with soft light that gradually strengthened as the day wound down. Gallery-goers sat on the blankets to visit with L’Hirondelle and the gallery staff. The sculptural or installation aspect of the work was thus altered by use, by habituation. An offer was taken up and new relations were created. This beginning was not a latency of the piece, rather, a  deliberate action. It required exactly who was there, their specific arrivals and departures, their unique transit, to create this aspect of L’Hirondelle’s installation. That said, if no one ever came, it would not contradict the humility, the statement, “I am here.” This “Camp of No Arrivals,” doesn’t have the apocalyptic pathos of the last aboriginal chunk of post-contact earth drifting slowly in deep space. Such pathos requires the play of presence/absence and other binaries that create value.

L’Hirondelle’s camp reminds us it’s good to try to think things without attaching unnecessary values. A blanket is a good reminder of this. The Idea of Blanket (cf. The Idea of North) in Indian territory is so pervasive that it almost escapes attention. A blanket on the floor set with food is an index of the relational. It’s a kind of architecture, too, then, as it’s a field for and of relations.

Happiness: our actions make our ancestors happy in the next world.

L’Hirondelle has come to prefer the notion “performative activities.” She realized one of the reasons she was suffering from pre-performance anxiety was because she anticipated her audience and what ‘performance art’ had to be. She realized she had to “take the work inside and be really happy with what I was doing. And that’s not to be egotistical and say I don’t care who sees it but they had to be meaningful activities for me. You’re not just trying to be spectacle, you’re not trying to be noticed but what are these movements, what are these activities, these actions, to me?” She started thinking, “From “our’ world view, our ancestors are sitting here with us, so I started to think how our ancestors were witnessing this.” So she started moving away from needing a stage and an audience and that separation. (FVA) This realization seems concomitant to Respect.

Love: to live in harmony; kindness and goodness.

Desire as an internally organizing force? Can desire be indifferent? We must move, we must go down stream – must we? Must one? Must one move? Is the move in me? The desire, the route, the path, idea of the path as desire, as constitutive, as a structural necessity? A way in, a way out, but with a mobile aboriginal architecture, with a path that may occur anywhere, it dislodges things, it makes things loose. The shadows in the tent are created by a woman and a light. We know this, but at the same time, we can’t help ourselves, or I can’t help myself. There is an associative energy at work, the shadows a Rorschachian shimmy. But we know it’s just a woman moving about – a tent and a blanket as architecture and as a relationship/image of/to home – a building with relations in mind. We are meant to be with the tent, the light and the food – being with – what is ‘being with’?

The question of love touches on one of the great silences among cultural practitioners. It’s a silence built of many things and in a sense it’s an artifact, fascinating for having gradations of visibility and invisibility, and for being the product of an understanding that leads to a deeper sense of the silence. And there is in this silence (reticence, obstinance, observance, allegiance, coherence) a sort of training that leads to a production of a silence of one’s own, and in this way, bears the hallmark of an integrity that understands one’s limitations. The limitations are sketched in a preliminary way by the work of translation needed to bridge gaps in understanding. L’Hirondelle’s work is so graduated, made out of a loving intent, where varying levels of understanding are met with the appropriate levels of translation. The fact that the syllabics on the floor will be incomprehensible to many audience members is not inhibitory. There is a place for the ones who step in and leave without understanding. There’s a place for the ones who sit with her, sing along and share in her laughter. There’s a place for the ones who can read the floor and decide for themselves where they are in what she’s presenting.

Faith or Finding Truth: to believe in a power greater than ourselves.

In an essay by Candice Hopkins, she presents the idea that a storyteller “in typical Cree tradition” becomes the story.[20] The story arrives in the space created or built between story, listener and storyteller. It complicates the Platonic by suggesting there are no Ideas, nothing to represent, nothing that needs representing, because the thing of the story is here on its own behalf. This makes an interesting image of aesthetics. Nehayiwin speaks of an “us” in regards to relationality. Included in this “us” are humans (of course?), but also other animate beings like spirits or animals. (Cree grammar has animate and inanimate as Latin languages have gender.) It’s not necessary to discuss how this alters concepts like “rights” or “nation” (cf. Ecuadoran constitution acknowledging the rights of Nature.) I wonder about the status of an artwork framed by Nehayiwin?

Kinship or Sense of Being Related: the roots that tie us to the lifeblood of the earth.

“It is one of the pivotal questions – tânitê ohci kiya, the one that lets you how we are related. It lets you know who you can take to your tent (ha ha) and what your bloodline is.”[21] An invitation to be in the tent is an invitation to be a relation for the moment or the event or the experience[22]…to open one’s flaps…[23] It’s important to her to say “her family has her back” and that the people she worked with in remote places use a language that may not be critically rigorous, but is in touch with other things like the land. “Then language that engages the land makes it more robust and therefore perhaps more rigourous.”[24] So the strength of her work comes from kinships. “Kiyânaw is a word/concept from nêhiyawêwin (Cree language) meaning us/we – inclusive! … What is kiy (pronounced key) is that we extend a generosity of spirit to all beings … challenging ourselves to ever widening the circle … kiyânaw ohci kâkîyaw iyiniwak (we are for all beings)!”[25]

Cleanliness: good health habits reflects a clean mind.

This is also the name for research, and helps explain the impulse to do things well. Gestural, intentional hygiene. She repeated a gesture to sew the flaps closed. Her focus and the repeated action modeled a quality of attention. I can’t or won’t name or identify this quality of attention, being that it was likely understood differently by each witness and therefore beyond my powers of description and empathy. But I will risk saying the quality of attention would be misunderstood if read as ceremonial.

Thankfulness or Gratitude: giving thanks for others’ kindness and the Creator’s gifts.

She remade the tent into an image of sacrifice, promise, offering or petition. Then she resumed her dance. She took on forms that resembled pictographs, ancient forms of writing evoking the extra-human. Her shadow played on the ribboned tent wall that recalled tattooed, or similarly marked and processed skin.

Sharing: providing for each other.

L’Hirondelle moved about, busy with her preparations, but taking some time to visit with her guests. They sat in a circle, talking softly with one another, some shyly take some food, careful to take just enough and not too much. The gentle ceremonial of being with new people in a new space and sharing – if you arrive at my camp, there’s food – with no thought of return; the obligation of return is not built into the gift. It’s as if the image of giving and receiving, and of those who give and receive, are parts of a dynamic of transport affecting all in the relation. It’s also a way of non-human relations. There is a lazy eye that can’t see that leaving things alone expresses sophisticated relational thinking founded in Nehayiwin.

A cookie, a berry, eye contact, speak a little, listen a little, laugh a little, working out space issues, learning how to negotiate a blanket. Do I step on it? Is that allowed? Is this a performance space or a domestic space? How do I consume this? How do I be here? There were people on the blankets, and a clutch of people at the other end of the gallery, near the entrance, either unsure or reluctant to sit on the blankets. Perhaps too unwilling to implicate themselves in the event, perhaps unclear on the system of exchange in place, perhaps not wanting to be feel responsible, to be feel obligated. She used loops of her voice to improvised a composition for her performance. The strength of improvisation is in the dialogue between the artist’s play and what the audience brings to the event. When improvisation works, it makes a tangle of conventional ideas of authorship. The artist responds to the audience responding to the artist responding to the… the question of who leads and who follows soon becomes meaningless. This aspect of improvisation dovetails with her interest in the random. She’s expressed her interest in performance being in part a development from her early interest in theatre. In theatre, she says, the audience’s eye is guided, is told what to look at and when. Performance for her, on the other hand, doesn’t dictate to the audience; their attention is more. If it can be said this way, it is ‘free range’.

Strength, Bravery, Courage, Endurance: accepting
difficulties and tragedies and the having patience to endure.

L’Hirondelle realized she needed to go back to the bush and learn the language.[26]

One wants to dig into an artist’s life to find some correlation between personal events and their work. This is a dangerous game and can make much mischief. The places where a person needs to be brave are personal stories and may not be meant for everyone. It’s enough that they show up and do what they must do, at the right time and the right place. That one needs to go into the bush sometimes should need no qualifier or explanation. What they bring back and are willing to share, that’s the likely limit of one’s questioning. After that, it’s the work.

Good Child-Rearing: children are unique and blessed with the gift of life.

Children were most relaxed in the space. When she stuck her foot out of the tent and waggled it, the children were the first to get the joke. The hippest of us kept our distance, resisted getting bound up in the ease, being suspicious of a child’s willful or intentional uncriticality. But is such a thing possible? Can someone sophisticated ‘be’ blithe? Is such a gift so easily given to oneself?

Hope: hope for better things to make life easier for us.

Every work of art has an ambition. It has a direction or intent and expresses world view. This may seem simplistic but it bears repeating. A portage requires repeated strokes as the river will be the river, especially as the greatest failures are typically preceded by mutual misapprehensions of differing world views. I won’t speak about intentional criminality, force majeur or simple idiocy. This is more about the work of translation. L’Hirondelle positions herself as a ‘wooden boat person’ (a Cree phrase for “european’) and a Cree, in a place that swirls with relational energy. Her positioning has the allure of an argument, with disjunctions, conjunctions, either/or, both/and, supplement, and complement. Her camp of transient artifacts will already attract and frustrate the collectors with their mesh screens, brushes and trowels. There are some who would place her somewhere on a traditional/contemporary continuum. She pops free and away like a fresh cherry pit.

As much as her work jokes and teases, as much as she makes fun, there is still a place, as there has always been a place, on this blanket. It is a meeting place, a camp that can be erected at any time, any place. The piece becomes an object demonstration of Nehayiwin. The audience sees how such a camp is run. They may be far from running a camp of their own, but they may at least learn to recognize it should they come across it. It’s a writing that some may need training for as it’s typically obscured by monuments and other nation-on-nation pornographies such as called History. “It’s like we have the antidote for some of what’s going on in the world, as indigenous beings, we have in our world views the antidote.”[27]

Ultimate Protection or Who’s Got Your Back: ultimate
responsibility to achieve a healthy balance of body, mind, emotions, and spirit.

“Because my work is interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, crossdisciplinary, transdisciplinary… I’m not worried about keeping things in their own little boxes.”[28] She spent five years in Northern Saskatchewan. Ahasiw Maskegon Iskwew told her this was her Masters degree.

… the bush inside…

Control Flaps: connection of all things controls
and creates harmony in our life; freedom, to own oneself.

There are two teachings for the tent flaps because there are two tent flaps. I am likely wrong. In fact, I will let this one be wrong because I wouldn’t want anyone reading this to rest with this article, taking it to be reliable. I will admit that it is unreliable and that the reader should work to verify for themselves whether I’ve been true to the sources and the work. In my research for this article, the idea of the tent flaps was unclear. The idea of Freedom doesn’t reside explicitly with the tipi pole teachings of the Elderspeak[29] website, but it does emerge in her talk at the Ontario College of Art & Design. I don’t see this as a contradiction because Freedom suggests one’s poles may become a part of the process. The tension between the individual and the collective is one of the great engines of human production. In êkâya-pâhkaci (Don’t Freeze Up!) L’Hirondelle proposes Nehayiwin as approach to these interlocked themes and questions. In the camp one brings what one brings, one takes what one takes, and one gives what there is to give. There is no system, but there are methods. In this light one may note the inadequacy of “aboriginal” to Nehayiwin.


[1]  Cheryl L’Hirondelle, Visiting Lecturer, presented by the Faculty of Art, Ontario College of Art and Design, Toronto, October 16, 2008 

[2] Wanda Nanibush, “Pirates of Performance: Wanada Nanibush in Conversation with Cree Performance Artists Cheryl L’HIrondelle and Archer Pechawis.” Fuse Magazine, Vol. 32, #1: 33

[3] L’Hirondelle, OCAD

[4] Cheryl L’Hirondelle. Interview. First Vision: Guts, cur. Archer Pechawis,  grunt Gallery, Vancouver, 2006

[5] L’Hirondelle, OCAD

[6]  L’Hirondelle, OCAD

[7] Wanda Nanibush in conversation, June 2009.

[8] “Dene/Cree Elderspeak: Tales From the Heart and Spirit.” HorizonZero: TELL: Aboriginal Story in Digital Media No. 17. Eds. L’Hirondelle, Cheryl and Joseph Naytowhow.  September/October 2004

[9]  L’Hirondelle, OCAD

[10] L’Hirondelle, OCAD

[11] L’Hirondelle, OCAD

[12] L’Hirondelle, OCAD

[13] L’Hirondelle, OCAD

[14] L’Hirondelle, OCAD

[15] L’Hirondelle, First Vision

[16] Nanibush, Fuse 27

[17] Nanibush, Fuse 26

[18] Nanibush, Fuse 31

[19] Birkes, Fikret, Sacred Ecology: Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Resource Management. Philadelphia: Taylor & Francis. 1999. 84-85

[20] Hopkins, Candice. “Interventions in Traditional Territories: Cistemaw Iyiniw Ohci, A Performance by Cheryl L’Hirondelle.”
E-misférica Issue 2.1. Spring 2005. <http://hemi.nyu.edu/journal/2_1/hopkins.html>

[21] Nanibush, Fuse 26

[22] Nanibush, Fuse 26

[23] Nanibush, Fuse 26

[24] L’Hirondelle, OCAD

[25] Kiy Manifesto ed. L’Hirondelle, Cheryl.

[26] L’Hirondelle, OCAD

[27] L’Hirondelle, First Vision

[28] L’Hirondelle, First Vision

[29]  “Dene/Cree Elderspeak: Tales From the Heart and Spirit.” HorizonZero: TELL: Aboriginal Story in Digital Media No. 17. Eds. L’Hirondelle, Cheryl and Joseph Naytowhow.  September/October 2004

Intimate Distances: On David Khang’s Phalogocentrix


On March 17 2007 David Khang performed with a beef tongue in his mouth, perhaps for the last time.(1) The performance, titled Phalogocentrix, was an experimental and experiential panoply of bodies, identities, histories and narratives – without voice – meant to evoke Relation. All the bodies belonged to Khang. I capitalize Relation following Édouard Glissant, the French-Caribbean writer and philosopher whose Poetics of Relation seeks to demonstrate human relation as always constituting both subject and object in an effort to forge a history of the subaltern that might produce a transformed reality of the past and the future. A past and a future that might impact new global orders of human life, transforming them even, in ways that we have not yet thought or imagined. Khang’s performance bears many connections to Glissant’s insistences on the means and the needs for transformative languages of our future, embedded in our past but not trapped by the past.

Phalogocentrix makes use of the body as a linguistic device and thus offers a language of unspoken histories, new vocabularies, and a re-verbing of the word and world to bring into conversation cross-cultural and cross-racial poetics. The performance attempts to manifest a kind of a creole language, more accurate of human contact than we sometimes are capable of acknowledging. While Khang dramatically re-languages the tongue by making a beef tongue into a prosthetic extension of his own, he also highlights the human as animal and re-centers the body in a cross-cultural language of cross-species survival. Through his use of a beef tongue, which lacks the capacity of (human) speech, Khang articulates the ways in which conduct and fashioning of the body constitute language. In this sense, Khang calls to attention the ways in which language and linguistics are not just cultural differences, but mechanisms of both distance and intimacy. The ability to learn the language of another, to perform it through speech, is in fact the learning of another’s cultural secrets – ethnicity then as a human invention is something that produces Relation in its distance and its intimacy. In Khang’s performance the body speaks a cross-cultural and cross-species language, which produces an intimate distance. This intimate distance is the lens through which cross-cultural and cross-racial identifications occur; and it conveys the power of a “strategic universalism” (Gilroy) to open a different kind of conversation about histories, genders, sexes, races, and so on – what we might call the categories of the human.

The bodily linguistics and language of Khang’s performance draw on what Glissant calls “ambiguous archives” (65) to produce moments of cross-cultural resonances meant to open a non-verbal conversation about our human connected-ness. Martial arts, break-dancing and yoga movements do not unfold as fully formed cultural entities, mystifying and closed as the sole property of various sanctioned ethnic groups. Instead such moves unfold and collide in partial performance providing a glimpse into our connected-ness and thus revealing and commenting on our investments in ethnic and cultural secrets meant to ordain our difference from one to another. Khang seeks to give us a bodily language of identification that can engage the difficult histories and knowledges of our present human terms of contact and conduct. Contrary to what might be assumed, that his performance is the failure of language, I would suggest that it is the exact opposite. The accomplishment of Khang’s bodily-language-linguistics is its ability to move us towards a confrontation with the modes of bodily conduct that prohibit us from verbalizing our Relation, one to another, on terms outside a history of inequality and injustice. Khang allows us to see and thus speak our Relation.

Khang’s performance is not a humanist performance under the terms of a European Enlightenment and modernity, which operationalized various categories of the human according to races and cultures and thus instated a practice of ethnicity as a vault of identity practice – as separation and thus a failed language of humanity which must be over-come for identification to happen. Khang’s performance refuses the discourse of mastery and domination, opting instead for what Houston Baker writing of the Blues calls the “deformation of mastery” (Baker). This different take on humanity or rather the species is only possible through an active and robust engagement with mastering form so that it might be deformed in ways that point to different points of view which are often neither heard nor seen. Phalogocentrix brings sight to the workings of writing and language that render cross-racial, cross-cultural and cross-species identifications difficult. The performance highlights the ways in which struggles to define a different conception of the human and thus the species require a fuller encounter with a wider range of peoples, bodies, histories. Khang’s performances thus signal a moment for the contemplation of a different conception of what it might mean to be human.


In Monolingualism of the Other or The Prosthesis of Origin, Jacques Derrida attends to the complications of language across a range of “performative contradiction[s]” (3). These performative contradictions, which can be most pronounced in the colonial setting, point to how speech acts are freighted with a history of violence that imposes categories of difference that label the colonized as sub-human. Incidentally, Derrida dedicates Monolingualism to Glissant. Taken with Glissant’s Poetics of Relation, the two texts offer a way of understanding Khang’s attempts at a non-verbal language scripted through music and body as sites for both escaping and referencing history, re-tooling a dreadful and violent past into terms that might be transformative of human potentiality to live differently. Khang, influenced by Derrida (while studying under Derrida at UC Irvine), eschews the mother tongue for a beef tongue, rejoining the animal-human link and its unspeakability. At the same time, he forces his viewers to identify with his efforts at the basest element of what it means to be human – which is what it means to be animal. In this way Khang is able to insert difficult histories for contemplation without immediately producing disagreement. The poetics of unspeakability, of the illegible scribblings and the kinetic moves of the body, produce a language that draws viewers in as it sets us up for a critique concerning, race, gender and sex.

The mother tongue is the problem that Derrida confronts in Monolingualism of the Other. In the colonial setting the language of the mother (or father) tongue carries the history of its imposition and its attempt to render the self unintelligible to the self and to others. And, yet the mother tongue becomes exactly that – a mother tongue. Such a tongue is always in tension with one’s sense of self, both aiding in the production of subjecthood and always producing the self as object. Thus the mother tongue becomes something that must be deformed, reformed and transformed. It becomes a language that one can only be in proximity to. It is in fact the notion of proximity that Khang makes excellent use of in his performance. Thus Derrida, writing of proximity in a slightly different implication states: “This gives rise to strange ceremonies, secret and shameful celebrations. Therefore to encrypted operations, to some words under seal circulating in everyone’s language” (33). I would argue that Khang achieves Derrida’s insights through his bodily language-linguistic performative speech acts.


Watching Khang perform Phalogocentrix in its kinetic expressions is to see and enter a dialogue concerned with how subalterns might speak to and with each other. But most significantly, to desire such a conversation is not to leave others behind. The brilliance of Khang’s performance is its interpellative call on the grounds of gender and sex to render those terms, and indeed their practices, strangely (un)familiar and in need of a serious engagement from a different place through another language. The unmaking of masculinity in Khang’s performance is one that draws on the ambiguous archives of race, sex and gender. In Khang’s re-working, masculinity is unmade, race is complicated in its history present and future, and sex is problematicised as a desire usually restrained, disciplined and normalized as other to genuine human intentions. The undisciplined disciplinarity of Khang’s performance points to the ways in which the human body performs conduct and is conducted based upon scripts invented and practiced even before our birth.

How does Khang do all this?

The importance of Khang’s performance lies not in its overall narrative, but rather in the points of access and various pushbacks that open spaces or crevices for thought to occur among viewers. These crevices constitute the spaces of cross-cultural and cross-racial non-verbal speech acts. In those speech acts, histories, bodies, races, sexes, sexualities among others are revealed as the sites and sources of possible and impossible conversations. The soundtrack made by Jason de Couto for the performance does a great bit of this work articulating histories of “black, white, yellow” and others, nation-bound and simultaneously pushing beyond such boundaries. The performance opens up viewers for individual and collective dialogues about our own situatedness in the dynamics of a conversation without words, as Khang’s body directs us to engage the accompanying collage soundscape/music. The gaps between performing body and soundscape invite contemplation of self and other constituted in histories but with an opening to a different kind of present and even future. It is in this light that I suggest that Khang’s performance is about the unfolding of a humanism not bounded to the Enlightenment project, but one that deforms such a project, recognizing its sometimes dreadful imposition on many others, in aid of pushing us toward better (yes better!) inventions of what the species might be.


Given that Khang’s Asian masculinity is always a suspect, lesser-than masculinity in Western conceptions of such categories, his invitation to dialogue about human categories is one of the ways in which he explicitly brings histories to his performance. The story of colonialism and continuing practices of coloniality loom large in the performance. To identify or disindentify with Asian masculinity is to engage in the process of what I have been calling intimate distances. The work of engagement or refusal is an acknowledgement of our Relation. In this instance the language of the body produces a linguistics of identity, which requires active engagement with the archive of masculinities, gendered understanding and performances that we draw on to make sense of and to perform and to recognize various masculinities. Khang’s body-language-linguistics brings history into the equation. In this particular instance the Asian-Canadian body speaks a history of racism – head tax, internment, labor exploitation. The body requires us to communicate with it through sight and sound, drawing us in and repelling us even when we must disidentify but still remain in Relation.

In one of the most systematic readings of kung fu and its circulation as an art form, especially in relation to cinema of the 1970s, May Joseph points to the frugality of the form. The body is the central element of kung fu’s practice of the self. Significantly, kung fu became popular as a global cultural style in the 1970s, especially in the former colonial world (for example Africa and the Caribbean) and among subaltern populations in the West like African Americans and First Nations/Aboriginals. Kung fu’s resonances can still be seen in the moves of break-dancers and in the names of many rap groups (Wu Tan Clan, A Tribe Called Quest, Dream Warriors, one could go on). This cross-cultural sharing and borrowing points to the ways in which cultural difference always references an Other, is indebted to an Other and is thus always constitutive of Self and Other. The inheritances of coloniality allows us to both recognize such sharing and borrowing, as well as bury or ignore it in service of a cultural vault mentality. Khang’s performance unlocks the vault forcing us to grapple with the inheritances concealed but simultaneously poking out, but often not adequately dealt with as an element of the Self. Such an acknowledgement would be to articulate our Relation. I am suggesting that Khang’s performance takes us there – to our Relation.

The merging of kung fu, break-dancing and yoga movements points to languages of bodily practice that evoke Relation. These moves in Khang’s performance open the possibility of practicing the life of the species differently. Recognition of one’s self as continually engaged in a practice and performance of citation – one that might not always be legible – shifts how conversations might occur. For example, the calligraphic references in Khang’s performance to Shigeko Kubota points to both gender and history. Khang’s performance from 2005, (vag)Anal Painting, addresses a “language” of femininity and masculinity not to make them unquestioned but to open up the conversation about the ways in which our practice and conduct of gender shapes our histories of community-making. What is significantly highlighted by Khang’s performance and citation of Kubota is that community only comes into being through citation and reference, whether amicable or antagonistic. Khang’s performance draws on a history of feminized Asian masculinity in a manner that does not acquiesce nor refuse such a designation but rather “re-languages” gender and the body by displaying or performing “the economy of stereotype” (Morrison) in a move to spectacularise it and thus invert, if not overturn its implications. This difficult task produces a kind of gendered-non-gender – Khang stops being a category for a while.


To stop being a category might be the most utopic goal of a post-modern sensibility that seeks to unwrite the highly regulated system of human classifications across race, gender and sex. The transcendentalism that is implicit in moving beyond a category seems to suggest a certain kind of privilege to leave history behind. Khang’s performance is deeply indebted to histories of the specific and histories of the universal. The priestly atmosphere of Phalogocentrix (staged and performed in a church) might suggest transcendence of the religious kind. But I would suggest that Khang’s performance is entirely outside of the realm of religious transcendentalism. The reading of scripture (in Hebrew, Korean, and English), the Eastern religious references, the pagan references all point to other languages, other forms of conduct, other ways of practicing the body – or embodiment. Khang’s donning of the Religious in the performance acts as a kind of moment of not just communion, but rather communality from which collective contemplation might be possible. Thus religion is a kind of alibi for a better conversation to occur. The baptism enacted in the performance is thus the opening of the conversation rather than an end in itself. This inversion of religious practice and Khang’s syncretization of it across cultures again signals Relation.

Ultimately, David Khang’s Phalogocentrix performs the re-languaging of human selves or the species in an effort for us to offer ourselves a better account of the world we presently inhabit. The role that scribal figures, mostly men have played in creating and propagating languages, especially written as sacred texts of human expression and thus the rules and the law of human life is re-ordained in Khang’s performance. This re-ordination by Khang is meant to complicate and render less harmful the categories to which we currently confine human life and the species. Khang’s beef-tongue prosthetic wants to tell us a story of ourselves that we cannot yet speak but need to hear. This story is one of our Relation.


The Beginning and The End(2)
Dearly Beloved, We are gathered here tonight to bear witness…to share in the performative trace and impression of cross-cultural and thus human and universal re-making. We are here to share in intimate distances. We are called to bear witness to a performative otherness that requires we rethink our encounter with such otherness differently every time. In this encounter the performing body transforms both us and itself to reveal or rather to provoke in us the scripting and sculpting of the body, its legibility, its intelligibility, it many languages. This body will perform for us tonight both its re-writing and its writing, its interpellation, its refusal and its re-statement. This body will offer up as sacrifice, sacrament and history of scaring the scripting of and thus the unwriting of modes of reading that disturb and disrupt but do not close down nor inhibit conversation. Rather conversational kinetic proliferations will be provoked. This body will… (the conversation cannot be predicted in advance of the encounter)

The kinetics of the Brazilian martial art and dance form capoeira has resonances with many Asian martial arts. The cross-resonances of caperaria and Asian marital arts might at first glance act as an appetizer into a full menu of Black and Asian cross-cultural resonances and historical sharing. But it would be too easy to pinpoint the marital art dances of both cultures as the ground of common and thus shared cultural understandings, histories and even meanings. The seduction of similarity, even familiarity makes cultural sharing a canard of cross-cultural identification. Instead we might look for something else. What that something else might be is a legibility, a scripting of cross-cultural resonances which collapse, indeed morph into and secrete bodily effusions which in turn script and write narratives of togetherness and desire. Bodily excretions, which bind and unite. “Blood is thicker than water” but blood and water remain sources of immense cultural identification and disidentification. Blood and water are but tropes towards the rituals of life – everyday and fantastic, religious and profane.

David Khang offers us the body as a script, his body as a script. A script that writes and unwrites the self in and on his writing body, his excreting body. His body is the canvas and the ink that calls to attention the writing and unwriting that makes intelligible the deep resonances of things that work to create intimate distances. These intimate distances are not the markers and signs of otherness but rather the mirrored reflections of self merging into self. For the viewer the looking becomes a deformed mirror, cracked and piece together as yet another and different language. The fluid and liquid traces and impressions of blood, water, ink – marks left begging for language, for resaying and rewriting. These fluids do not offer the promise and the prospect of mimetic representation, but instead those fluids bind us in difference, yet uttering desires for coming together. The blood of this body…

Bodies, other bodies can spectacularize histories in their performance. The spectacularized black phallus makes sense in light of the missing Asian penis. While phallus and penis are not always the same for othered racialized bodies the non-relation of their relation provokes conversation. It is in fact the space in-between, the space between the move and its pause, the break but not the separation that in which the trace and the impression, the cross-cultural resonances, the production of language(s) and the communion of Afro-Asian dialogue begins. It begins not as antagonisms, as a looking over the shoulder but as a mutual desire to live beyond the too easy intelligibilities and legibilities of narrative being written, unwritten – languages spoken and muted – bodies marked and unmarked and the too easy assertions of recognizable similarity and familiarity.

David Khang remakes and rewrites, Khang opens up the space of his body to allow for the utterance of common feeling, scripted or written as a the intimate distances of human and cross-cultural resonances made unfamiliarly strangely familiar.



(1) Beef tongue was used for the first time by Khang in 2003-04, in the pair of performances Zen for Mouth (Track 16 Gallery, Los Angeles / Kezai University, Tokyo), in which he executed LaMonte Young’s Composition 1960 #10 to Bob Morris by “drawing a straight line and following it” with the beef tongue as a prosthetic paint brush. Since then, the tongue has been a recurring motif in several of Khang’s works, including: Linea Lingua (2004), Glossographia (2006), and Artifice of Sacrifice (2006).
(2) This section of the essay was written as a kind of liturgy by Walcott for the performance in Toronto to add to the performative sacredness of the setting, a church. It was an improvised response, maybe a collaboration with Khang’s ideas prior to the performance. The text was passed out to those attending the performance as they entered the church. It is added here as both a post-script and a signal of the beginning of my engagement with Khang’s art.

Works Cited:

Baker, H (1984). Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Derrida, J (1998). Monolingualism of the Other Or The Prosthesis of Origin. P. Mensah (trans.). Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Gilroy, Paul (2000). Against Race: Imagining Political Culture Beyond the Color Line. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Glissant, É (1997). Poetics of Relation. B. Wing (trans.). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Joseph, M (1999). Nomadic Subjects: The Performance of Citizenship. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Morrison, T (1992). Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Rinaldo Walcott is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Canada Research Chair of Social Justice and Cultural Studies at OISE of the University of Toronto. He does research on the social relations of cultural production.

Glyn Davies Marshall’s Where have you been? (Somewhere Between Wakefield and Wichita)


Glyn Davies Marshall began to develop his practice in the 1980s whilst studying Fine Art at Wakefield College, and likewise at Coventry University; a process that then saw a natural migration towards performance-based work. Glyn’s performance work often requires years to gestate, with an intention on the part of the artist to see each of his work’s concepts through to a cathartic climax. Glyn has developed a task-based approach to performance art. Through these ‘tasks’ we witness the artist come to terms with both the work and the context in which it is created, frequently challenging the orthodoxy of his environment.

This essay concerns the trilogy of works carried out by Glyn in 2006 at the Toronto Free Gallery as part of Fado’s IDea series, and presented in the context of the 7a*11d International Festival of Performance Art.

Glyn Davies-Marshall was born in West Yorkshire in the late 1960s, and is every bit the embodiment of the post-nuclear latter part of the middle 20th Century. Having missed the Cultural Revolution boat of the ’60s, Glyn has to many become a fixed position of no global (yet immense personal) repute. With no one cultural persuasion holding dominion over Glyn, his work is indoctrinated with a quest to dig for certain foundations – as an agnostic may seek to do so when in the process of attempting to anchor down the notion of God.

As Glyn begins his first work of the week, Palomino, we are privy to the artist clutching at a sizable Union Jack for a period of no less than 10 minutes. Pouting folk music fills the small room and Glyn assumes the role of ringmaster for the often ceremonial work: the endeavour of which appears to be to crudely yet meticulously carve the shape of his country from the sod on which he stands. This burgeoning stance appears tenuously representative of the perceived stoicisms of the English. We later hear the parodied voice of a local radio DJ, who assumes he is addressing a cool demographic of New York or Los Angels as opposed to the actual Yorkshire listeners. Here we see Glyn’s work flirt with both that which he loves of England and that which he finds laughable.

Glyn’s thesis stems back to the 1980s and the begining of his practice. It could be argued that the superficial nature of much British ’80s pop culture – seen by Glyn as something of an historical flux – has given him the opportunity to abandon any particular niche of sorts and exploit the plasticity, fervour, and confusion offered by the period., accompanied by a love/hate relationship towards it. In favour of any fixed position within the art world, popular culture, or tradition, Glyn exhibits a unique and subtle eccentricity that sets him quietly aside from the throng. This is particularly evident inGlyn’s relationship with has with his audience, often glancing at audience members and welcoming interaction in a far from structured fashion.

The aforementioned, sought-after foundations come to take on literal form as they are explored in the work. It is here that Glyn’s obligation to approach the grand narratives rudely ignored by postmodernism becomes apparent. We do witness a smattering of that which may be tentatively eyed by the Postmodernist, Liberal or the Humanist opposed with that which may make the ascetic bilious. Perhaps I am jumping the gun somewhat, although in my defence, Shane appears to be shooting at the artist’s feet! Yet this cruel game appears to hand Glyn both momentum and focus.

Truly original and abstract expression became a tall order within the English cultural landscape circa 1980. Somewhat cruelly born an individual, Glyn would shoulder the damning prospect of carving originality in such frantic times with a vigour that would, in the words of Kerouac, ‘Scare the Whore of Babylon let alone me’ (Big Sur 1962). Then swathed in uniform white paint, and now dressed in expensive denim, the artist’s changing attire reveals his works’ roving pervasiveness. In the twenty years since its inception, the work, its context – in relationship with others, with family and with scene – has seen a massive shift. Yet its bones remain. As Glyn presses his face into the gallery wall and recounts lost drunken conversations with his father, a ghostly halo is created inside the gallery.

Given Glyn’s nod towards England’s forgotten working class, we must address the notion of the ‘left’ that seems to underpin the work. In order to bypass stigma the artist clearly has little intent of raking over, we shall look past aggressive socialism and focus on the rudimentary rattlings of the artist’s early years. Neither Yorkshire nor his own idiosyncrasies are the flagrant narratives they appear to be; rather, the words we hear spoken by Glyn have hung heavy for decades. They are words that I am somehow able to hear myself, and that trigger similar ghosts to those held dear by the artist and his audience alike. The tears that roll down the face of many patrons on the evening of Palominos’ presentation are testament enough.

Here we witness further avoidance of ‘raking over’ class-related issues and/or geographical warbling; rather, a bead is drawn to probe the intrinsic, and occasionally spiritual. In Glyn’s work, we see an esoteric approach to a depth not reached by the discussions that have become (some) of the hallmarks of post modernism. Although Glyn’s own brand of Punk rock will undoubtedly afford us discussion on some such hallmarks, we shall vgilantly steer clear of some of the more defeatist traits that punctuate the theory of the past two decades.

The artist’s young palette was customarily and unavoidably indoctrinated with an England blinded by its own simplicity, a simplicity that lay dormant within earlier works. Of late, this simple beast has stirred, and appears to have become the monolith of his practice in general. The simplicity in revolution, in its shortcomings and small successes equally, and ultimately simplicity in defeat – all very much a part of the social and political landscapes of Glyn’s formative years – allow for a fortunate platform from which to work. We see Glyn resolute to make physical commitments to his space. The painstaking creation of the tiny objects that eventually litter the space appears to be yet another tip of the cap to working with his raw material in the basest of fashions.

Glyn’s use of irony, social hallmarks and signifiers in no way suggests that he treats his subject matter with any level of disdain, and to some this may negate my suggestion that Glyn’s focus is not the various stigmas so quickly attached to the North of England. Rather, Glyn endeavours to turn the concept of surface-level social realism and/or socio/politically minded artistic activity inside out. He does so through the reliving of childhood’s sensation overload, building and layering.

The finite nature of current political landscapes, cultural identities and class dynamics is now far too complicated an issue to broach without seeming painfully naïve and somewhat latently misanthropic. However, there is a direct correlation between the socio/political indifference evident in current climes, and the somewhat indifferent response that contemporary art is met with by not just the majority, but often by its own patriots. To quote Floridian punks Against Me, “Maybe there’s something wrong with the audience”. It is clear where the origins of an indifferent audience lie and we may begin to contextualise.

Glyn commented recently that at times eyebrows have been raised and concerned questions asked around his usage of the Union Jack in his work. If indifference is a crime for the audiences that Glyn has been responsible for over the years, and we are attempting to avoid (a) spineless liberalism that has been bastardised within the confines of its own rule book, and (b) smash-it-up anarchism; we are at every turn left in an increasingly sticky situation. As Chomsky (1969) identifies in his early essay ‘Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship’, conformism and resulting passivity often negate free institutions; this is a theory that resonates well within arts communities. It would seem that a very definite layer of indifference is bred through what can almost appear to be layered conformism, passivity and eventual tolerance of art, but also of the dissent which harbours only acceptable (or at least ‘played out’) levels of assertiveness. If we look at Joe Strummer’s infamous assertion that “Rock n Roll does not change anything”, we are privy to how this indifference occurs at almost every level. This cycle of indifference is systematic to the core. But what of a dormant (to the mainstream) yet flourishing underground art culture? Could the term ‘Underground’ be yet another cog within this system of indifference in support of the status quo?

The issue here is that although Glyn’s stage is primed and most certainly ready for an evening’s work, a large demographic of his audience have become deaf to his braying. Who and where are the audience? The second piece of the festival, No 33 appears to work most of all for those willing to endure its six-hour duration, in which Glyn builds items later to be destroyed in one of his dramas involving airplane crash or cowboy invasion. Toys and items once thought precious by the audience are smashed indiscriminately under hammers, horseshoes and feet, and a sense loss is felt as Glyn clearly detaches any sentiment from these items.

The trail left behind in the wake of Glyn’s work is viewed by the artist himself as surplus, as something that no longer contains meaning; a husk if you will. Yet for the viewer, it is the artist’s very own contribution to our image of the North of England and its gradual decline from tradition. It is the action of creating this sometimes valuable mess that holds stock. At the end of the performance, Glyn allows the audience to sift through the remains of his work if they so choose; this willingness to pass up these performance artefacts (which they most certainly are, just in the way that a diary, videotape or any kind of documentation is) is an exercise in benevolence on the part of the artist that is seldom seen within the mainstream, ‘socially conscious’ culture.

Of late, I have witnessed Glyn begin to buy into mainstream tradition quite unashamedly in his personal life, and we continue to see this in the work as he waves the Union Jack, plays, and sports an England football shirt. So where does the line exist between football and urinating into a wash basin (two activities I have witnessed him engage with this month alone)? Each is representative of a harkening back to childhood, and each is an attack on his own adulthood: one bound by tradition, and the other an attempt to disenfranchise such. Art and football appear to co-exist relatively harmoniously where Glyn is concerned.

In most publicly visible examples of recent socially conscious art, music and film, there appears to be a certain trendy abuse of sentiment. This is a pity, as it appears to play into the hands of the very source of the problem, and eventually becomes nothing more than novelty. The fringe of the art world bears this albatross as we continue to tolerate the cycle of indifference and allow it to deepen.

The tabloid media and popular culture that Ardorno once rightly predicted would stifle the voice of the public also uses sentimental devices to evoke a feeling of worth in its recipients. It’s ownership and public faces exist comfortably and sleep easy in an alternate reality that pays little attention to the cause it may have casually reported on that morning. Whilst one tabloid newspaper affords a half-page spread to the suffering bought to the lives of the South African fruit pickers, another falls afoul of torrid self-generated sensationalism. Although a hugely significant story is being reported, this kind of sentiment can only ever be superficial to a nation of people constantly disillusioned by the very form of media touting it. Glyn appears to sidestep this trough, his focus much more aligned with folklore than with today’s popular topic.

Yet again the art world mirrors this in that much of what has come to pass simply washes over the heads of an audience that has ‘seen it all before’ and been ‘shocked’ into submission by a banal controversy that is really of no use to anyone wishing to pass comment productively on a world in the throes of conflict. This is not to suggest that much contemporary work’s content is invalid; rather, it is the stage from which the work projects and its social position that have become problematic.

Although postmodernism has afforded the art world an invaluable source of flexibility, pluralism and mobility, it has also in many senses (and unfortunately so) left the notion of reality a laughing stock. As with Baudrillard’s theories on simulacra and simulation, contemporary culture struggles beneath the fact that much of its hallmarks are merely imitations of imitations. This results in the dissipation of the actual or the artefact, ultimately shedding light onto constant bastardisations of what some once considered sacred. Paradoxically, it is this that lies at the heart of Glyn’s work. His current practice deals with the endeavour to keep alive the words of his mother and father and the script of his homeland. This manifests physically during the work: sign posts are constructed bearing the familiar words of home, and later Glyn hangs off of them.

The climactic and certainly the most moving display from Glyn during the Toronto trilogy comes at the end of his final work, The Wichita Man Is on the Line, which sees Glyn weeping into the silence of a disconnected telephone line having staged a conversation with several family members, some of them deceased. The audience are left somewhat subdued and bound to the room as this cathartic and deeply personal experience unfolds in front of them.

If post modernism has allowed us to question the reality of what is presented before us, then the lowering of expectations, tolerance of casual dissent/ sentiment alike, and the watering down of the very principles it advocates, has become the albatross of any art that has something to say. Glyn has found himself in an art world that questions his righteousness, as well as a mainstream that is indifferent to his shouting, as they have been bored so frequently by the half-hearted attempts of people we know as celebrities rather than as the social commentators they claim or aspire to be. Yet there is light at the end of the tunnel.

‘There was a general feeling [?] everywhere you looked of reaching back into the past and searching for a lost England that was somehow a better and simpler place to live’ Vic Reeves ‘Me:Moir’ 2006

The iconic image that I hold of Glyn’s North of England, his upbringing, and the black-and-white celluloid image that informs this opinion, is indeed the dreaded postmodern condition at work once again. My understanding of Glyn’s past is one pieced together by sitcoms, the retelling of the experiences of others, and an overriding collective of clichés, whereas Glyn’s is every bit a part of him as my views are a part of me. However, never have I felt as close to Yorkshire than during this week’s trilogy of works whilst watching Glyn wrestle with the place that he so often loves to hate.

This act of giving something of his version of Yorkshire along with the performance surplus previously mentioned intercepts any threat of the work becoming shrouded in propaganda or symbolism. We see the artist’s attempt to find middle ground between America’s old West and his homeland. The overriding title of Glyn’s work for the past ten years has been Somewhere between Wakefield and Wichita. It seems no coincidence that the old West Glyn creates in the gallery this week is methodically hammered at and demolished throughout the work whereas the signposts of home remain. If the images, tools, or debris left behind are in no way sacred or even salvageable to the artist, then they are disenfranchised from forming any sense of measured or calculated symbolic order. Glyn does not hold great store in the setting of his work, yet he is captivated by its scale. This reveals that it is the living breathing Yorkshire inside of him alone that drives the work, as opposed to the acquisition of a certain aesthetic and/or relationship to space, artistic position or uniform. There is no identifiable assertion of agenda ready to leave the work tarred with stigma.

Glyn has been identified as possessing a certain benevolent disposition that contradicts the icy postmodern glare and scoff of which simulation appears to be such a profound bass line. He has also managed to sidestep the assumption that America is the cultural playmaker for an emulative British society. Glyn’s young life was heavily influenced by a thriving British culture in the throes of reclaiming its identity and proud parochial through rock music, film and performance art alike. This has enabled him to operate at a healthy distance from Americanisation and has allowed for a playful retelling of the old American West (an old West that he appears to draw close with one hand yet push away with the other). Songs of the Johnny Cash and Rock Island Line ilk also intercept some of the work’s darker and more intense moments. What we see is far more playful and childlike than emulative, reassuring us that Glyn has quietly ebbed from another of postmodernism’s most beloved dogmas whilst making some attempts to exploit its revolving door nature. In this we see the postmodern condition of simulation used most effectively, if only in witnessing Glyn’s confidence in referring to him self as a ‘True Cowboy’.

Glyn’s work of late is characterised by a quest to stumble upon a forgotten simplicity by relinquishing control of the materials it leaves behind, offering the audience the option of both physically exiting the space and taking what meaning (along with what items) they will from it; if any at all.

Glyn appears to construct an agenda that draws on both his values, and ideologies in order to de-centre not necessarily the corporate, the pop, and the mainstream, but the average, the middle-of-the-road and the easily come by liberality of much contemporary culture. Glyn in this sense becomes the workhorse, the pit pony and the catalyst for this to take place. By his own admission, Glyn has of late borne the desire to probe a Yorkshire omitted beneath layers of sickly portrayal and what Glyn refers to as the ‘awfully patronising’ social realism movies of the 1990s. These movies are a constant source of umbrage with Glyn, as he finds that they serve no purpose other than to exploit and elaborate various modes that contribute to the fabric of his childhood and of his deeply personal work. The cheap laugh.

It must be nice sometimes not to have […] ever been trained to look at life any differently to what we’re actually and fundamentally bought up to be. We go to university and people spend three years teaching us a way of looking at the world, to the point of no return sometimes. I feel that it must be really lovely to have all this uncertainty, anger, passion and stress, simply bypassed; if only by doing the normal thing that everyday people do.

—Glyn Davies Marshall ‘Stafford College’ July 2006.

As Glyn points out, there is an identifiable longing for peace within the personal sphere, yet this stands in opposition to many of the feverish (publicly accessible) displays of the past two decades. Where guttural screams in white art spaces are concerned Glyn is at home, yet this is a far cry from the traditions of home and the gentle words of his father. It is important to consider towards what ends Glyn does endeavour whilst generating his work. Surely there is more than simple catharsis at work here? Where does one turn if after twenty years the purpose served has been to simply facilitate the very vacuum from which he now ebbs?

On numerous occasions I have witnessed Glyn formulating his work as it is in progress, his eyes scanning the space in anticipation for whatever item of wood, masonry or prop will next become part of the landscape currently occupied by him and his audience. Those items that go unused are left as evidence of plans we will never see put in spin.

If the purpose of Glyn’s role within an arts community is the striving for a ‘withering away’ of any sense of elitism or ‘art clique’, then we may begin to see the ends that Glyn strives to make us aware of. It would seem that a model of initially happening upon the paradoxical nature of art that seeks to probe, map and resolve conflict, exploiting it through execution, and finally lynching it from the comfort of his own hick-ass ways, is taking place. This occurs through a gentle discussion of that which has contributed to the man Glyn is toady.

The ends are no more steadfast than the scaffolding supporting them.. Glyn is seen to work towards objectives subject to constant fluctuation, given their track record. The doctrine etched into him by his arts education and the involvement in many of its institutions has caused a reaction against itself. Now it would seem he seeks to probe and hold the hand of the very world that pushed him towards this scene in the first place.

If there is a post script to this text, it is that I have attempted to afford myself the rather aloof opportunity of avoiding an ever-impending ‘cast die’, allowing for a flexible rule book that is malleable enough to compliment this ever shifting work. This method sits on the fence as it attempts to address the issues presented by the middle roads of both mainstream and counterculture alike, and the common ground they share in Glyn’s work. The not-so-elusive English eccentric is now upon us once again with his most recent trilogy of works, and Glyn has offered me the opportunity to shout for him a way that he is hesitant to do so himself. I am more than happy to oblige my good friend in doing just so.

Adam Rogers studied Contemporary Art in Nottingham and has since gone on to study Post Compulsory Education in order to complement his position as associate lecturer in Performing Arts and Music Context at Stafford College. In September 2007 Adam intends to begin study towards a master’s degree in creative writing and culture studies. Adam has continued to develop his writing practice through a number of performance works, exploratory texts and contributions to fanzines. Adam is 24 and lives and works in Stafford.

Artist’s Proposition: In Search of Friedrich Nichtmargen

In Search of Friedrich Nichtmargen/From Uncreative Travel Book XXIII
[Surface Area 510,100,934 km2 196.950.168 miles2 ]

I can imagine him in his incorporable standing with his glass in the hand between all the travelers, standing in this trouble movement – yes this is Friedrich.

—Boris Neislony

Perceiving and identifying Friedrich. Recognizing ourselves.

It is a busy Monday afternoon. The streets are all overcrowded. A girl is crossing the street. She goes to the local shop to buy a bottle of mineral water. In a distance you see a tall figure of a man slowly walking towards you. How do you recognize that is Friedrich Nichtmargen, the artist?

Me, Vassya Vassileva I am in search of the artist Friedrich Nichtmargen since Thu, 4 Nov 2004 14:42:37 -0800 (PST)(1)

Since I lost Friedrich I have been perseveringly looking for him. I cancelled my engagements in order to be able to search for all vestiges of evidence that Friedrich would inevitably leave behind himself. I am much grateful to all artists that support my effort to pursue the intricate working of Friedrich’s mind.

Identifying a concept

According to Friedrich Nichtmargen every declared identity is misleading, unhelpful and irrelevant. It is difficult to question the identity of a person who has always proved his considerable caution about his own identity suggesting that clearly stated identity is a pure diagnosis.

Who is Friedrich?

I do not now much of him. He has been always jostling out his own appearances. He postulates himself as a part of the so called art world but at the same time harshly distinguishes himself from that world. He has always been resistant to ideas, images and artistic strategies that most of the artists find so significant for their practices.

He states his art as something that must be called ART just because it could not be classified as “art”. He hides the concept of his being but nevertheless he provides clues that inevitably lead us to one possible concept of that being. Being aware that “presence is always mediated by what is absent” might not help us to identity a being that would never launch itself neither as present nor absent.

The fact is that we do not know much of Friedrich Nichtmargen. What we know for sure, though, seems to be sustained by many varied artistic concept of the same “thing”.

There are truly remarkable artists engaged more or less in unraveling the tangled story of one of the most unusual artist nowadays.

At the end that shall not be a Search that aims to classify the art of F.N or to grasp his personal idea of art and life. That shall not be an attempt to simply draw Friedrich’s world within our own either. That shall be a search that mediates between reality and illusion. But isn’t it that quest predestined then?

Geographical Twist in my Quest

I was told by the artist Hermann Hessler that Friedrich intended to go to the Canadian Woods in relation to “the indispensability of measuring the distance between certain kinds of trees”.(2)

I decided at once that the next geographical locality of my search shall be Canada and precisely Toronto. Why Toronto? Because I know the artist Paul Couillard who lives there and since we have exchanged mails about Friedrich and his artistic speculations I came to the conclusion that it is quite possible to find Friedrich exactly there – measuring the city according to his own particular systematic approach and landscape taxonomy.

However when saying Canada or even Toronto I am fully aware that this specification is quite insufficient in order to be able to localize geographically the area that should be scrutinized for such a short period of time. Therefore I need to continue searching for evidences that would allow me to narrow the geographical space of Friedrich’s possible appearance.

A Proposal for Fado Performance Inc. – IDea (2006-2007 season)

Location proposed:
Longitude: 79° 24′ W
Latitude: 43° 40′ N

Distance and Movement

During my stay in Canada I shall search for the artist Friedrich Nichtmargen. In order to prefigure his local appearance I shall strictly follow his own rules of mathematical formalization while measuring the distance by my own.

Facing each other geometrically

I will try to read the geographical space according to Friedrich’s own idea of human geography. I shall therefore suggest a strategy that constitutes an identity bases on particular encounters, a “virtual presence” that could only be mediated by the people of Toronto. I will also try to establish multilayered connections between people who are not co-present in time and space and by doing so to construct a socially interdependent “being” between all those people that have been engaged in the quest of Friedrich Nichtmargen. As I wrote before I believe Friedrich’s identity may be constructed only by the interrelated presences of many collective artistic efforts. However certain tension between the enframing discourses of identity and the “living thing” that is put into identifying seems inevitable.

Reading the geographical space

I will set up a temporary observation of certain places that might be insignificant for the city as a whole – these are – abject places, barrens, junk spots, geographical leftovers that have always been of special interest for Friedrich Nichtmargen. I will engage myself in direct observation and reports concerning the above mentioned places.
Following again Friedrich’s methodology I shall put into question historical notions like LONGITUDE/LATITUDE while roving the Canadian Woods.

Performance Search Forecast

The complexity of that quest inquires a rich variety of cognitive abilities and artistic strategies that would mediate the traces of particular encounters and memories of particular experience. However the discriminating scrutiny of the evidences as well as their representation as “art objects” must be avoided as a rule. This is a proposal that is not engaged in fixing one coherent piece of art as this proposal is much inspired by Friedrich’s words: “the identified notion of ‘something’ is nothing more then a failure to sense that life stores the whole of its meaning into our dynamical livings”.

Following the narrative of my journey I shall elaborate a description of my walk around the city. Everyday protocols are also needed in order to guarantee the remembrance of the searching experience. During these kinds of searching processes there are usually a huge amount of evidences, texts, notes, diagrams, drawings, invoices, entangled objects, documents, images etc. The Institutum Fridericianum where I am currently based is attentively collecting those traces related to Friedrich Nichtmargen in order to enhance the further quest. I shall alight on selected traces proposing talks (public and personal), actions, lectures, installations situated around the city, and a PRESENCE that aims to establish an ontological framework for the IDea of Friedrich.

When should the search stop?

The artist Friedrich Nichtmargen is gargling with his own IDea until the liquefied IDeal substance reached the most hidden depths of his throat. That could be envisaged as one possible end. When the gargling stops then it is going to be quiet. And I will be free of searching. Until the next gargling starts.
=Message truncated =
Vassya Vassileva
23rd of September 2005
The Institutum Fridericianum, Sofia


(1) Friedrich was that time engaged with the remarkable Summit of the Summit. He spent two weeks in Sofia. We climbed Black Peak together with the artists Justin McKeown on the 3rd of November 2004. Early in the morning Friedrich was doing his remarkable 5-day photographic action ‘L-r’ (left to right) exploring the manipulation of art history (as he put it in the official program).

For more information please visit: http://iapao.net/iapao/modules.php?op=modload&name=News&file=article&sid=137&mode=thread&order=0&thold=0

Friedrich’s behavior, though, seemed a bit mysterious to me. The next day he appeared early in the morning. That was the same day we were supposed to perform together. He was lingering over a pipe and speaking loudly about Jaspers and “Weltanschauung” while at the same time holding a needle in his right hand. Then he said he must leave immediately and swiftly disappeared. And I haven’t seen him since.

(2) In a conference held on the 2nd of November 2004 at the Institutum Fridericianum the artist Friedrich Nichtmargen also announced that he had his own particular system for measuring the distance between certain kinds of trees. Part of his documentation along with diagrams and texts are property of the Institutum Friedericianum. However we do not have permanent access to that information since it is kept into a wooden box labeled by the others: EGO FRIDERICUS. The box has been locked until now.

Melting: Points in a performance by Warren Arcand

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.T hough 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.

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?

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]

—James Piereson

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

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.

(2) http://www.performanceart.ca/idea/arcan/statement.html

(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).

(5) http://www.costumes.org/history/100pages/18THHAIR.HTM

(6) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean-Jacques_Rousseau

(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.

(9) http://www.colinsmythe.co.uk/books/whosa.htm

(10) James Piereson. The rise & fall of the intellectual.” The New Criterion September 2006.
(accessed June 27, 2007).

(11) Arcand. Performance transcript.

(12) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canadian_history

(13) Alain Badiou, “The Subject of Art” accessed June 20, 2007.

(14) Arcand. Performance transcript.

Works Cited:

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.

Searching for an Empty Signifier, or How to Read Vassya Vassileva’s Work?

“The artist is the origin of the work. The work is the origin of the artist.”

Martin Heideggar, Poetry, Language, Thought. (1)

The past thirty or so years have been marked by a so-called ‘cultural turn’, which emphasizes cultural systems and their influence on the creation of meanings. This turn has also opened a new door for those in the arts to use multiple and interdisciplinary approaches to the production, criticism and reception of art. Of the many new terms and notions that the cultural turn has generated, questions of identity and its political, social and economic ramifications seem to have surfaced most powerfully. Identity thus has become a contested space and its role in political and aesthetic action(s) is seen as one of the pivotal questions of the so-called postmodern age. What, then, is the role of art in constructing and challenging identities?

Fado’s IDea series tries to address some of these questions by showcasing diverse performance practices by a number of national and international artists. One such artist is Vassya Vassileva, whose performance In Search of Friedrich Nichtmargen / From Uncreative Travel Book XXIII [Surface Area 510,100,934 km2 196.950.168 miles2] was presented in the context of the 6th 7a*11d International Festival of Performance Art. Following the dates of the festival, Vassileva’s performance took place between October 19 and October 28, 2006, beginning with an initial public presentation at Xpace as part of the opening event, and unfolding to the general public through daily meetings at 5 pm at the Toronto Free Gallery. Vassileva’s work offered the audiences of the festival a particular way of thinking about performance and conceptual practices. Her work is a careful intermingling of conceptual and performance art that creates its own cryptic language and through that language challenges notions of art, identity, epistemology and artistic positioning.

As Heidegger’s quote from the beginning of this text suggests, there is a curious relationship between a work of art and its creator. As Derrida and Barthes suggested in the 1960s and as Heidegger seems to argue in his writings, the artist cannot be solely responsible for the work’s creation. The myth of the originary genius, the lonely artist, is thus rejected in favor of an idea that the work has a life of its own, influencing the artist. The artist and the artwork are therefore forever seen as imbedded in the historical, cultural and other environments which influence the creation and meaning of what we call art. Vassya Vassileva’s performance work brings these notions to the fore. In her practice, the artist constantly challenges her own positioning as an artist. She challenges the notion of the audience and opens up the meaning of her actions to a variety of interpretations. In this manner, Vassileva follows a long line of performance and conceptual artists who, since the middle of the 20th century, have been trying to reposition art and its often elitist identity.

The Lines of Sight

There is a famous episode in the history of performance art in former Yugoslavia when, in the early 1980s Tomislav Gotovac, a Croatian performance artist, walked along Ilica Street, one of the main streets of Zagreb (capital of then Republic of Croatia,) and did a public performance/action piece. The piece included him walking down the street nude, singing a famous popular song about Zagreb and kissing the ground that he walked on. A police officer came to him and arrested him for public indecency. However, when the artist was brought to the police station he was immediately released as the officials there understood that this was ‘art’ and the directive was not to disturb such occurrences. The police received information on what they should do if something like this were to happen again. And lo and behold just a few short weeks later a policeman was patrolling the streets of Zagreb and saw a man trying to climb a large pole. He carefully approached the man and asked him if he was an artist. However, the man replied that he was not. He was clearly drunk. The policeman said, “In that case, you are arrested.” This amusing incident is telling of the kind of reactions performance art practices, especially those done in public, can elicit.

I felt a similar thing was happening as I watched Vassya Vassileva’s first performance at Xpace. The room was filled with people. There had been several excellent performances prior to Vassya’s, and the atmosphere was quite high. However, there was also some confusion as the artist quietly stood leaning on the wall, holding in her hands a small plant placed in a bit of soil. There were no announcements or physical signs that something was happening. At a certain point people began to notice her standing there and started approaching her, asking about what she was doing. The answers were as puzzling as the performance itself: cryptic, short, and often in a form of a question. Vassileva is looking for someone I was told, she is looking for Friedrich Nichtmargen, an artist with whom she worked. But what does this plant have to do with her search? How is it supposed to help her? What is the point? These and many other questions were posed to the artist as she stoically stood there, her hands shaking from holding the plant, her eyes focused. She is trying to see how much the plant will grow.

Johanna Householder writes that “[p]erformance art seeks to investigate existing conditions, includes human presence, and questions the purposes, processes, apprehension, and experience of art; while making it”(2). In that sense Vassileva’s actions, not only on the night of the opening of 7a*11d, but throughout her subsequent public actions, included specific questioning of the position of art and artist in the specific moment. Playing with both critical theory and semiotics, Vassileva has built a multilayered practice which speaks about her own position as an artist, but also the meanings that are created through the act of involvement with the world around her. In Vassya Vassileva’s performances, every performative act is an act of its own negation. Not only is she in dialogue with the act of naming and identity, but she also questions the very possibility of art.

“Art’s double character as both autonomous and fait social is incessantly reproduced on the level of its autonomy. It is by virtue of this relationship to the empirical that the artworks recuperate, neutralized, what once was literally and directly experienced in life and what was expulsed by spirit”.(3)

Following Theodor Adorno’s critical view of art, we could argue that Vassileva’s performances are primarily acts of questioning and negation of art, and of specific social, cultural, political, and theoretical discourses. My written response to Vassileva’s work deals with three specific and very personal observations. First is Vassileva’s interest in negation – negation of art itself and questioning of the role of the artist. Secondly, I wish to look at the ways in which Vassileva’s practice engages the question of art as a social act, an act that is both a response to one’s own practice but also an act of responding to the Other, the audience. And finally I am also interested in the relationship that Vassileva establishes to the notions of epistemology, science and the discourse of reason.

In Search of Friedrich Nichtmargen

“Art has truth as the semblance of the illusionless.”(4)
We are sitting on the floor of the Toronto Free Gallery. Vassya is in the middle, using an upturned wooden pedestal as a desk. She is reading a series of questions, all of which have been compiled during the course of her stay in Toronto. The questions have been posed to her by various people she has met. Some of them are related to the performances and some are related to things that have happened in general. The list is long and the performance finishes as the list is apparently exhausted. Someone adds a couple more questions at the end. Vassya smiles. In a brief comment after the performance, Vassya adds that this was the ‘real’ performance (as opposed to all the performances done in the previous several days). Posing questions in regard to Vassileva’s work is not hard, as it seems that the practice she confronts us with demands them. The most obvious question of course is that of the relationship between her performances and the search for Friedrich Nichtmargen. He is a real person, perhaps, or maybe we would like him to be real. Vassileva never really discloses if her search is trickery, an illusion. What we find out from her proposal for the Toronto performances is that she has lost Friedrich.

“Me, Vassya Vassileva I am in search of the artist Friedrich Nichtmargen since Thu, 4 Nov 2004 14:42:37 -0800 (PST). Since I lost Friedrich I have been perseveringly looking for him. I cancelled my engagements in order to be able to search for all vestiges of evidence that Friedrich would inevitably leave behind himself. I am much grateful to all artists that support my effort to pursue the intricate working of Friedrich’s mind.”(5)

Friedrich is thus a premise for Vassileva’s search, but search in this case becomes an end in itself – or does it? The search is a particularly constructed process in which the artist engages in a variety of actions, or protocols, as she calls them. Each moment lived in the city is a search event meticulously recorded, written about and planned. Vassileva uses everything from texts, maps, mathematical equations to diagrams and notes to search for Friedrich, and each encounter brings new possibilities. However, the question of Friedrich’s existence – or rather, his disappearance – is never solved. And as Vassileva argues, Friedrich could be related to everything; he is an empty signifier. This notion of an empty signifier also puts Friedrich in the position of an empty centre around which everything else happens. Thus, he becomes everything and nothing. He is able to subsume all other meanings, and as Vassileva argues, he can be related to everything depending on who is initiating the search. By allowing Friedrich to become almost anything and everything, Vassileva also allows her practice to become more open to questioning.

In his now famous text “Aesthetic Theory”, Theodor Adorno argued that works of art are autonomous social monads which always carry within them specific kinds of tensions or contradictions which stem from artworks’ internal, or formal tensions, from their intellectual import, and from artworks’ and artists’ involvement with the socio-historical environment out of which they come and to which they react. These contradictions are telling of an artwork’s autonomous nature and are also the way in which art is socially engaged. That is, artworks become “the social antithesis of society.”(6) By their specific, and often cryptic formal language and what Adorno calls ‘truth-content’, artworks serve as a mirror to the capitalist/ industrial, instrumentalized society.

The notion of negation is key to such artworks and stems from understanding art as a constant questioning of itself, or as a negation of its own premises. Vassileva uses such a strategy of negation in her practice. By constantly proposing specific notions through her performances and then negating them – for example, when approached with a question about a specific action that she is doing, she will answer with a question that challenges the action itself – she establishes a dialectical dialog, a form of dialectical thinking which opens up the meanings of the work and allows a multiplicity of interpretations. Thus, her performances are in a constant state of flux, both innately connected to the audience and constantly eluding meanings, constantly in a game of non-identity. Friedrich Nichtmargen is therefore a perfect metaphor for art itself, or at least how Vassileva sees it. It is impossible to identify who he is, where he is, or why people are searching for him. The elusive nature of this person, his impossible, always-absent identity, is a metaphor for the fact that each artwork always leaves an unknown remainder, a part that can never be identified. Adorno would call this non-identical thinking, a way of thinking that does not impose a specific identity upon the object considered, but allows the object to always be different, strange, or contradictory. Art is therefore a repository of non-identical thinking, thinking in contradictions. It allows the object to always elude total understanding or reading. Vassileva insists that to respond to something, an artwork in this case, is to be aware of the limits of one’s response, of one’s immanent situatedness in the world and in a particular frame of thinking.

What Do You Think This Is?

“To put it simply: to respond is to be engaged with the others, to provide for a living discourse that involves and considers the limits of every interpretation, every naming, every description, the insufficiency of every mental concept we create in order to articulate reality.”(7)

Another important aspect of Vassya Vassileva’s work is her insistence on art as a social practice which acknowledges that each interpretation, each act of naming or describing, is insufficient and limited. However, each one of these acts is equally important in the artistic production as it displaces the common preconceptions around origin of the work of art and the artist’s role in it. Each of Vassileva’s performances in Toronto was intrinsically connected to the notion of audience participation. While standing at the bridge on Queen St. East, holding her small plant, the artist engaged in a vigorous discussion of what she was doing with several of us standing there participating in the performance. Moreover, as we participated in a philosophical discussion on the questions of usage of live objects (i.e. plants) in performance art, the passersby looked at us intently and transformed our conversation. The surreal scene on the side of the bridge, surrounded by traffic, noises and construction, created an environment in which every external reality (external to Vassileva’s initial action of holding the plant in her hands), every word we uttered, and every person who passed by, somehow altered the reality of the performance itself. The question is then who is the artist, and what is art? This is the very question that spanned all of Vassileva’s actions throughout her week-long stay in Toronto.

At the opening night at Xpace, audience members most commonly asked one question: What is your performance about, why are you holding the plant? And every time the artist would respond by asking a question: What do you think it is? This emblematic question seems to point to the heart of the matter, as it directly uncovers the centuries-long notion of the artist as the sole author of the work of art. For Vassileva, as for many artists engaged in performance practices for the past several decades, this question has always been turned back toward the audience, acknowledging the fact that the origin of meaning is never a singular event of naming or identifying, but a constant, ongoing dialectic of various naming and misnaming events, of identifications and misidentifications, of interpretations and non interpretations. Therefore, each performative act is a social act in which the Other is recognized and included. It is, as Vassileva argues, innately a living discourse. Almost forty years ago, Roland Barthes wrote “The Death of the Author”, which recognized the problematic of the author, arguing that by removing the author a text is freed from the imposed limit of singular meaning:

“Once the Author is removed, the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile. To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing. Such a conception suits criticism very well, the latter then allotting itself the important task of discovering the Author (or its hypostases: society, history, psyche, liberty) beneath the work: when the Author has been found, the text is “explained” – victory to the critic.”(8)

Thus, the text needs to be recognized not as what he calls a ‘teleological’ unity but as an unstable field where multiple writings and meanings clash. The reader, accordingly, becomes the focus of that multiplicity of writing, as the texts are geared toward the destination – the reader. Vassya Vassileva recognizes this in her work by turning the focus from herself and asking the viewer, or the participant, to interpret the action. Thus, the question posed to her ‘what is your work about?’ is immediately turned toward the viewer and the meaning is thus reversed.

Artists’ work is relational, and deeply involved with the audience recognizing that the meaning is always in between, always in negotiation and never closed. Therefore, Friedrich Nichtmargen is a perfect symbol, a perfect subject who always stays elusive to identity, open to suggestion, an empty signifier around which any and all constructions of signification are possible. And when Vassileva searches for Friedrich she is, in actuality, searching for the viewer.

In order to prefigure his local appearance I shall strictly follow his own rules of
mathematical formalization while measuring the distance by my own.

Vassileva’s performances are a mixture of planning, improvisation and experimentation. They are pseudo-scientific, pseudo-theoretical, philosophical and purely physical interventions that combine audience participation as well as total negation of audience presence. Her work is laden with subtle tensions and contradictions, actions that seem to lead to absurd conclusions. However, these tensions are a deep reflection of the socio/cultural milieu out which the work comes. One of Vassileva’s performances at the Toronto Free Gallery was an excellent example of such tension. She drew two circles on opposite sides of the gallery space. One of them was on the floor and the other on the wall. The small plant used in every performance was suspended over the circle on the floor by a piece of wire. The performance consisted of the artist walking from one side of the room to the other, seemingly measuring every step she took. There was an air of confidence, knowing and determination in her actions. As an audience member, I felt as if I was privy to a scientific, or alchemical experiment. In her later performances, the small plant on a piece of wire was manipulated by the artist in various ways. All of such action events seemed strangely familiar and yet cryptic. They seemed familiar because of Vassileva’s mimicking of the scientific discourse through positioning of the body and manipulation of the material. Furthermore, the cryptic element was there as an odd leftover, a signaling that this was not a scientific event, but an alchemical one. How does one turn thought into material? How does one make the plant grow? From day one, it seemed that Vassileva was trying to make the small plant grow. How can mind rule over matter?

All of these tensions are of course also part of everyday life, and are not perceived in such metaphysical or alchemic terms. Contemporary scientific discourse seems to be laden with notions of instrumentalized reason. The need to have power over nature – not just nature around us but also the nature within us – has become an overarching goal of genetic research, physics and biochemical experimentation. To know and to discover is to possess. Such a need has created bizarre, Frankenstein monsters, from the atomic bomb to the creation of cloned animals that can be harvested for their organs. It seems that there is no place on this planet that has not been overturned and possessed through human intervention. But as we have now learned, all such possessions come with a price tag. They are inherently contradictory. While on the one hand we create more gadgets, improve our communications, make our lives faster, we are also destroying the very home in which we live. Vassileva points to this contradictory aspect of Western epistemology by creating subtle, tension-filled actions which through their idiosyncratic qualities point to the absurd nature of the human need for development and possession. However, unlike science, art in this case mimics science in order to reveal its innate flaws. This is why Adorno stated that art is “the social antithesis of society”(9). Art is a mirror held up to society, a mirror which through its autonomous language can breach the possessive reason of mainstream discourses.


As Vassya Vassileva has elaborated in several of her responses and statements, as a writer or as an artist one is always primarily a responder to what is happening around her. Such responses are always situated and their meanings are never complete. And so I also have to submit to this observation, acknowledging that my own response to Vassileva’s work is only a limited, very personal and always biased view. As such it does not mean that it is any less true, as truth has nothing to do with responding to art. What becomes important is to always leave room for interpretation and free reading of the text. No one should possess the work, the artist least of all. This is perhaps the most important observation I can make both in terms of Vassileva’s work and my own writing about it.

I have tried to tease out three important streams of this extensive performance/ conceptual body of work. It is hard to write about a project such as In Search of Friedrich Nichtmargen, not because it is large but because it spans a variety of disciplines and contexts. It is a conceptual conundrum, and yet it also opens itself up to new interpretations. The reactions to Vassileva’s work in Toronto were multiple, from interest to confusion to irritation. From my own conversations with the artist, I have learned that she received dozens of questions and an equal number of readings – from understanding that her work is ecologically based to that it is purely conceptual. I guess all of them are right in a way, as this is what Vassileva would argue. Her quiet, pensive and very humble demeanor allows everyone to add their own two cents. This in itself is part of the work, as the artist puts herself in the position of a non-identical thinker, or an open signifier. Identity is a tricky notion; it plays somewhere between reality and illusion, and both the artist and Friedrich Nichtmargen whom she is looking for are opened. They play between reality and illusion, allowing the viewers to become participants, or artists themselves. Finally, as Vassileva has written to me in an email, “indeed when we write about other people or things we genuinely write about ourselves… as what we describe speaks about us far more than our direct confessions or reports on our own beings.”(10) And so I am adding my two cents to Vassileva’s work, my own participatory note, in hopes that it will contribute to the richness of the artist’s complex and ongoing search.


(1) Heidegger, Martin. Poetry, Language, Thought. Albert Hofstadter Trans. and Intro. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2001.p.17.
(2) Householder, Johanna. “apologia.” Caught in the Act: an anthology of performance art by Canadian women. Ed. Tanya Mars and Johanna Householder. Toronto: YYZ Books, 2004.
(3) Adorno, Theodor. Aesthetic Theory. Trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.
(4) Adorno, Theodor. Aesthetic Theory. Trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997, p.132.
(5) Vassileva, Vassya. “Artist Proposition.” For Fado Performance Inc. 2006.
(6) Adorno, Theodor. Aesthetic Theory. Trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997, p.8.
(7) Vassileva, Vassya. “Notes on Introduction: Performance Art Respondent Forecast #1.” For Mobius International Festival of Performance Art, Boston, 2006.
(8) Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” Image, Music, Text. Trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977.
(9) Adorno, Theodor. Aesthetic Theory. Trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997, p.8.
(10) Vassileva, Vassya. “RE: Hey there another question.” E-mail to Bojana Videkanic. 14, December, 2006.

Bojana Videkanic is a PhD student at the Department of Social and Political Thought at York University, Toronto. Her background is in art history and fine arts, and her research deals with contemporary art practices, visual culture and cultural theory. Bojana teaches art history and visual culture at York University, Ontario College of Art and Design, and University of Toronto in Mississauga.

Cindy Baker’s Fashion Plate
© Cindy Baker, 2005. Photo Miklos Legrady.

Through the wide picture window of the Drake Hotel’s coffee shop I could see Cindy Baker and Megan Morman sitting at a large harvest table. I walk by this window often, sometimes several times a day. Normally, this table accommodates tiny hipsters in trucker baseball hats with svelte lap top computers, nibbling on pencil tips (I sometimes wonder if this is their lunch). For two weeks in the summer of 2005, the normal patrons made way for a messy hub of alternative activity that was Fashion Plate. For the performance, the large table was covered with fabrics, notions, sketching paper, assorted drawing utensils and pattern books. At one end, Cindy was talking with unsuspecting patrons of the café as well as a few intentional performance art lovers who were curious as to what Ms Baker was up to (she has performed before in Toronto so there was some expectation and excitement about this performance). At the other end of the table sat Megan Mormon, Cindy’s partner and her assistant for this project, behind a sewing machine working with great concentration on a seam and juggling the duo’s receipt book used for keeping track of their fashion orders. For Fashion Plate, the audience was invited to design an outfit for Cindy. Some of the participants sketched a design for a single article of clothing and others created plans for entire outfits. Pattern books and fashion magazines were scattered on the table for inspiration. In her original artist statement, Cindy says she wanted the participants to come up with something from scratch: “translating what they like on their body to hers, or ‘sizing up’ the artist’s size, taste, and personal style and decoding it from abstract idea to 3-dimensional design.” The plans that the visitors made were given to the artist and assistant to sew and make into clothing. This project produced a total of 30 items of clothing over the course of 2 weeks and culminated in a fashion show. What is activist, practical and for some even interesting about this performance is that Cindy is fat.

My PhD dissertation is about fat activism and fat bodies. Furthermore, I headed up and worked with the performance and education troupe Pretty Porky and Pissed Off for 8 years.(1) I am ready to write about Cindy Baker. But this research, prep and experience did not wholly prepare me for what I found when I encountered Cindy and Megan at the Drake Hotel one hot summer afternoon.

What is striking at first with the performance of Fashion Plate is how much space these women take up in the café. It is noteworthy that their fat bodies and all the stuff that they’ve brought seem to mess up the space of the Drake coffee shop — who belongs and who does not. The amount of space they are taking up is relative to the context that they are located. One of my complaints about the Drake has been its clientele of “beautiful people.” You know the type — movie stars and fashion models — and the very body fascism that attends this type of crowd and the insecurities that the spaces occupied by those who fit into those kinds of body standards bring up for the rest of us normal, ugly, fat folk. When I first see Cindy and Megan through the Drake window — I think: Yes!! The fat girls are taking over the Drake. The presence of their active fat bodies temporarily transforms the meaning of that space for me.

© Cindy Baker, 2005. Photo Miklos Legrady.

The second striking element of Fashion Plate is Cindy’s fat body. The practical process of the performance demands that her fat body be looked at. People have to measure and consider her rolls and girth in order to create the patterns for the clothing that she sews. Some of them did the actual measuring. Others, who participated on a less active level, had to watch her get measured and move around. Cindy speaks about this secondary participation in an email conversation with me a few months after the performance:

For those who didn’t actually make something, they were still confronted with watching others do this awkward dance with me, got to see the process of the garment’s creation, got to hear the conversations. I estimate that for every person that made an article of clothing there were 10 others that I had individual conversations with that covered a range of topics from body politics to women’s rights to performance art to fashion design, and way beyond. I really feel like just because someone didn’t make something, it doesn’t mean they didn’t actively participate in the project.

The attention she got was obvious, as her performance space is lively and demands a lot of attention. She is undeniable.

Arguably the bodies of fat women are caught in a strange double existence of simultaneous invisibility and hyper surveillance. If they are regarded they are watched and judged and held up as examples of excess without subjectivity (think of the headless bodies of fat people, used to strike fear regarding obesity epidemics, that we are familiar with seeing on the nightly “news”). These are sneaky looks at fat bodies. One of the only other occasions that we “see” fat bodies in the media are in before and after shots for diet ads or television shows like “The Biggest Loser” or (the thankfully cancelled) “Fat Actress” which are about getting people out of the subject position of fat as quickly as possible. For Fashion Plate, Cindy asks the visitors to actually consider her fat body as a lived reality – not as a problem necessarily. Audience members engage with it and participate in it via clothing. I watch as visitors finger and look at the swathes of cloth and size up Cindy. Cindy’s body at time of performance seems to sit in the category (what we call in fat activist circles) as super size. She is a real fat girl — not just chubby or chunky or “feeling fat” as some of the smaller patrons in the café may “feel” and complain about regularly (familiar with the following question: “Do I look fat in these pants?”) Cindy looks, is, and embodies fat.

In her artist statement, Cindy talks about how this project gives people permission to look at her, and to practically size her up. The challenge for her is to be looked at in a manner that she assumes will be “critical.” Part of the purpose of this project is to get people to consider fat bodies outside of their normal framework. In a previous performance titled Glass Box, Cindy walked around in a giant clear plexiglass case. While the strategy of the performance was to draw attention to the vulnerability and protection of the artist, I can’t help but see it as the visibility and the erasure of the fat body as Cindy paraded through public spaces in a protective plexiglass box with sharp edges. Viewing her body through the box in the context of the mall, the street and the park was about allowing people to look at her and also about forcing the private experiences of the body into the public through this display. In Fashion Plate, Cindy is making people not only see her, but also think about her body in a more complex way. She employs the position of fashion model as a strategy to force her audience into a place where they are the artist/designer. By including the audience in this construction it means that they have to think about her body and the object they are creating with a sense of pride. What will provide a sense of accomplishment is if the clothing fits and Cindy looks good in it. Their mission was to make Cindy look beautiful. This is not a project that most people are used to taking on in relation to fat bodies.

Cindy’s performance is about making her body visible — literally forcing people to consider it. Baker’s excitement at the success of her performance comes from moments when participants figured out something about her body in relation to the clothing they were designing. She recalls moments when they may say something like “Oh! I get it, that crease goes way deeper than I thought.” For Baker, this represents “some honesty on both our parts, because we were both letting our guards down and being a bit vulnerable, one in displaying her body and the other in displaying her ignorance.” It is this ‘realness’ of reaction or the letting down of one’s guard that Baker is after with her performance. The outfits and the materials are all just a ploy for her to get to see small crumbs of people’s real and unfettered reactions to her body. One of her most favourite (and she adds horrific) moments of the performance was during the final fashion show, when some of the audience members could not hide their reaction to her body in a skimpy bikini. Baker says:

[W]hen I came parading in wearing Leif’s bikini or some other skimpy dress, people’s gut reactions were painted on their faces. It was the one time where I felt like “Yes! Some honesty!” That’s what made it satisfying; there were lots of really supportive people and lots of positive reaction, and I felt confident, but the best part was that there was still visible proof that the problems I was raising through the performance really do exist, and that I hadn’t just created a bubble of support around me that shielded the rest of the world from having to deal with it at all.

© Cindy Baker, 2005. Photo Miklos Legrady.

In retrospect, Baker talks about being surprised at how much her body was actually a part of the performance. It is as though her body in theory, in grant applications and performance proposals is nothing like her lived body in the moment of the performance. What gets lost on paper is the emotional experiences (both joyful and traumatic) that become much more poignant in the moment of performance. It seems as though Cindy’s performance forced her to see and be in her body in ways that she is not necessarily familiar with in public contexts.

Cindy did not anticipate that her work would be received by willing participants who were open to getting their hands on her body. In our interview she claims:

…one thing I could not predict was that those who were willing to engage did so wholeheartedly, and were not afraid to get their arms around me, to wrap me in fabric, to hold things up to see how they’d look. I thought I’d be more of an active participant in the process than I often ended up being; in many cases, I was asked to stand, lift up my arms, turn around — to be a mannequin.

While I could make the obvious connection between Cindy’s body and objectification, my experience at the performance suggested to me that there is more to it than that. Like Cindy mentions above, people were interested in engaging with her and talking with her as well as, for some, getting their hands on her.

Fashion Plate is a blend of performance and object-making. Baker claims that the most important part of the project is what happens between her and the people she connects with through conversation and negotiation. She wanted to find out about what she calls in her artist statement “the things that were avoided as well as the things that were covered. Each garment tells its own story, but it is the final product; the rack full of clothes, the finished collection — that has the potential to demarcate trends or reveal truths.”

Cindy was surprised by the kind of clothing that people were interested in designing for her. Rather than practical clothing (and this may speak for the kind of people willing to participate), people were interested in making what she calls “contemporary art clothing.” She says: “Instead of trying to make something that fit by selecting a simple design, they pulled out all the taffeta and the organza and made the most elaborate designs and really tried to make me into their diva.” This may be one of the ways that people are actually able to consider the fat body — as spectacle. Cultural theorist Mary Russo (1994) makes this point in her analysis of the articulation of female subjectivity by performance artists who use the grotesque. Basically, if our frame of reference for fat bodies is diva, clown, or freak show fat lady, this would explain why some of the clothing designed for Cindy emphasizes babyish or clownish characteristics. Russo and other academics that consider the fat body such as Probyn (2000) and Le Besco (2003) point out that one of the only ways to actually celebrate fat is to do it in a kind of over-the-top, carnivalesque, grandiose way rather than as “normal.”(2) Trying to articulate fat as normal is actually quite complicated because of the meanings that the fat body is laden with. The case could be made that celebrating the fat body is a special occasion rather than an every day event. Still, sometimes a useful and practical blouse or trousers are way more important than a taffeta dress. In reworking meanings attached to fat bodies there is a fine line between clownishness(3) and dignity.

© Cindy Baker, 2005. Photo Miklos Legrady.

I understand the impulse to make and decorate a fat body like birthday cake. This has been a strategy of Pretty Porky and Pissed Off. The literal translation of “joy” attempts to celebrate the fat body given the visual tools that we have – we called it fat drag. In this way I am consciously utilizing Judith Butler’s early theories about gender and performativity in relation to drag culture, which highlight how gender itself is a copy. In Bodies that Matter (Butler, 1993) she looks at how othered sexualities challenge gender fixity. By looking at concepts of the lesbian phallus and cultural phenomena like drag (through the film Paris is Burning) she critiques “normal” gender by looking at drag performances. Fat drag, I argue is a way of “doing fat” that emphasizes its constructedness rather than inherent givens. For example, Baker, by wearing a Muu Muu that is way over the top is donning the classic attire of “the fat woman.” She is marking her body as fat. She is performing fatness in a way that is “knowable” to the general population. However, when she sports a bikini, she is definitely stepping outside of the boundaries of what a fat woman is supposed to wear or how she is supposed to present herself. When she does this, she is subverting the fixity of fatness. She is shaking it up by subverting it and drawing attention to flesh and the constrictions of it in the same ways that drag queens and kings critique “normal” gender. Baker is challenging “normal” bodies and in effect using her body and her clothing line to demonstrate how “thinness” or “normal size” are also performed. Fat is not the imperfect copy of the proper body. There is no proper body, and fat is.

Performativity works to “produce that which it names” (Butler, 1993, p.2). That is, “naming it” is making and doing gender. Simply put, performativity theory claims that “saying” makes something come to being. More complexly, performativity is how the subject comes to know itself — it is how we are able to articulate “I.” Generated through speech act theory such as this, claiming “I am fat” can be revolutionary, while simultaneously hearing “You are fat” can be oppressive. Both statements can work to empower or oppress. Both statements are constitutive of identity. What happens when the fat woman asks the “normal bodied” person to design clothing for her? She, and they, are acknowledging that she is fat. Because of the unavailability of clothing in larger sizes, they must make clothing for her “abnormal” body that mirrors “normal” fashion in some way.

The complexity of Fashion Plate is that Baker asks participants to consider the fat body in relation to their own. Which means that I would like to ask some of Baker’s designers: Would you wear that dress to the party? Could you wear that shirt to a job interview? Do you think that Cindy conveys confidence and cool sexiness with what she is wearing? The answer is no to the majority of the outfits that were designed for Cindy. Crazy and beautiful — yes. Practical and usable by this fat bodied woman in her everyday life – no. This lack of practicality is an observation. It is not necessarily a failure of the project. It is the failure of people to engage with the practical realities of fat bodies. One of the main purposes of Fashion Plate was to get people to think about fat bodies in relation to their own (the majority of the designers were not super size). It is telling that given the opportunity to do this they designed clothes which are actually further away from probably anything they would ever wear in their own lives. I would argue that they did in fact consider Cindy’s fat body in relation to their own and when pushed to contribute to the creation of an object in relation to Cindy’s body, because of fat phobia, they made something that was really quite distanced from their bodies(4). It is the kinds of revealed truths that are found in the impracticality of her designed outfits that are the quiet success of Baker’s project from this fat activist’s perspective.

My own design contribution took into consideration some of my learned experience as a fat woman as well as my immersion in fat culture for the past 10 years. I know that fat girls have difficulties negotiating body visible areas such as swimming pools, fitness clubs, beaches and dance clubs. I wanted Cindy to have a bathing suit that was totally cute and that she could wear to the beach in a fat body — that means a top that could hold her boobs up and a bottom that covered her butt. I also considered Baker’s career as an performance artist and figured she could handle her midriff showing, so I made it into a bikini — arguably not practical, however — revolutionary for a fat woman to wear in public in my imagination.

In the research for my dissertation I interviewed 15 women who identify as fat and asked them to talk about how they move through the world in their fat bodies. One of the most cohesive findings in my research is that fat women have a lot of difficulties clothing their bodies. Furthermore, the experience of shopping is not positive. In terms of space, the clothing store, and more particularly the change room, are often sites of oppression for fat women. For many it is the location where they first learned they were fat and that fat is wrong — often seeing themselves through the disappointed eyes of a “well intentioned” mother or sales person. The clothing change room is a site of disappointment, anger and frustration. One of the elements that I find the most exhilarating about the Fashion Plate performance is asking “normally” sized bodies to consider a fat body and lovingly and excitedly dress it. I am/was also astounded at how Cindy bravely transformed the space of the Drake Lounge into a public change room. I don’t mean that she changed in front of people. She changed in privacy. But she paraded around in her fresh new outfits in front of the judgmental eyes (replacing the mean moms, shoppers and sales people). By doing this, Baker takes this seemingly universal fat experience literally out of the closet. Those who are able to take this idea in can access how profound this kind of feminist intervention is. Cindy turned that space inside out. As an audience member during the fashion show I felt terrified and triggered. I wanted to protect Cindy. I cringingly watched the Drake clientele either ogle or consciously ignore Cindy as she paraded through the hotel in her new tight and often skimpy outfits. We are not used to seeing the flesh of fat bodies in public in this way. The only time I’ve seen the kinds of corporeal realities that Baker exposed has been at the YWCA change room (a life transforming experience) and in spaces that have been marked by activists as fat positive by the bodies that are there and the performance that takes place.(5) The unveiling of Cindy’s outfits in the pretense that it was a fashion show (and it was) was actually quite a solemn affair. The smallish crowd that had gathered to witness Cindy’s performance tried to overcompensate with clapping and cheering but there was little interaction between the audience there to observe Cindy — “the converted” as she refers to them — and the groups of people who just happened to be in the space. But, according to Baker, this is truly what she wanted from her performance — some real reactions to her body. For many people the realest reaction was ignorance in all its forms — I’m not surprised and neither is Baker.

I am looking forward to Baker’s next endeavour, which promises to create an even bigger spectacle and will taunt her audience even more — denying them the opportunity to turn away. For the aptly titled: Personal Appearance: Performing Self Cindy Baker, she is constructing a professional mascot costume of herself. Similar to other amusement park and sports team characters, Cindy’s mascot will be cuddly, goofy and supposedly approachable. In her artist statement, Baker theorizes that the mascot will: “function to erase social barriers and encourage physical contact and play, as well as the building of emotional bonds; it will therefore allow me further and more complex access to my study of people through allowing them to study me.”

Will Cindy’s mascot of herself be sweet or will it be monstrous? Hopefully, it will be both — my favourite flavour.


(1) “Pretty Porky & Pissed Off was not initially conceived of as a performance group. Rather, the group endeavoured to raise awareness in other ways, such as protesting, conducting educational workshops, engaging in group consciousness raising, and other activities. The group evolved, and in addition to these activities, they also eventually produced zines, held fat girl clothing swaps, performed street theatre, as well as more formalized performance work that could be classified as ‘cabaret style’, meaning it encompassed a variety of performance styles, such as monologue, dance, storytelling, singing and fat drag. While multi-faceted, the activist performance repertoire of PPPO’d is all geared towards one central goal: raising public awareness and consciousness about body issues and fat phobia”. (Pinterics, 2005, pp. 178-9)

(2) I would like to draw a parallel as well as underline the danger in normalizing outsider or marginalized identities and sexualities – and arguably occupying fat as a position of pride or even happiness is outside the mainstream ideals of loathing, fearing and hating fat. However, as is the case with most identity-based politics, fat activists have expressed fear of losing the radical politics based in their identiies with the homogeneity of normalness (Cooper, 2005). Think about the arguments by some queer activists against gay marriage, for example. The fear is that normalizing outsider identities in fact erases the very differences that make them unique and interesting or resistant in the first place.

(3) There is a historical legacy that has existed at least since the turn of the century which has associated fat bodies and fat people with clownish behaviour in white North America. This topic is considered thoroughly in at least two collections of essays by Braziel and Lebesco (2001) Bodies Out of Bounds: Fatness and Transgression and Kulick and Meneley (2005) Fat: The Anthropology of an Obsession.

(4) This is not unequivocal. Some of the outfits actually looked like the people who designed them, for example, Paul Couillard’s muu muu, Vera Frenkel’s multi layered gown, Istvan Kantor’s neoism uniform and Leif Harmson’s bikini. Making Cindy into the larger doppelganger of these famous artists, offers an entire other psychoanalytically based essay about ego and creation – the desire to see the self blown up larger than life….

(5) Here I am thinking about fat cabarets like Chubbalicous (2001), Blubber (2001), Double Double (2002), Big Cindy [ironically titled in relation to the work of Cindy Baker but it was not originally titled with her in mind] (2003), No Lose (2004-5), and Chub Rub (2006).

Works Cited:
Baker/Mitchell email interview, Feb/March, 2006.
Baker, Cindy, Fashion Plate artist statement, FADO website
Baker, Cindy, Personal Appearance: Performing Self Cindy Baker (unpublished)
Bazeil Jana Evans and Kathleen Lebesco, 2001, Bodies out of Bounds: Fatness and Transgression. Berkley: University of California Press.
Butler, Judith, 1993, Bodies that matter: on the discursive limits of “sex”. New York: Routledge.
Cooper, Charlotte, 2005, Plenary Speech at NoLose conference, Newark New Jersey, available at www.charlottecooper.net.
Kulick, Don and Anne Meneley, 2005, Fat: The Anthropology of an Obsession. New York: Tarcher/Penguin.
Le Besco, Kathleen, 2004. Revolting Bodies?: the struggle to redefine fat identity. Amherst MA: University of Massachusetts Press.
Pinterics, N. 2005. Big & Bawdy Bodies: A Feminist & Cultural Studies Analysis of Fat & Frisky Performances. MA thesis, Mount Saint Vincent University.
Probyn, Elspeth. 2000. Carnal Appetites: FoodSexIdentities. London: Routledge.
Russo, Mary. 1994. The Female Grotesque: Risk, Excess and Modernity. New York: Routledge.

Naufus Ramirez-Figueroa’s The Sun is Crooked in the Sky: My Father is Thrown over my Shoulders

Naufus Ramirez-Figueroa’s performance The Sun is Crooked in the Sky; My Father is Thrown Over My Shoulders, is an intimate investigation of the process of duration in the creation of performative acts. Over one hundred sleepless hours, Ramirez-Figueroa worked through actions, quiet contemplation, and active interpersonal dialogues while engaging a fluid gathering of viewers. Within the work, Ramirez-Figueroa meditated upon “a genealogy of absent white fathers”, and the socio-political condition of “whitening” inherited from the colonial process in Guatemala. The performance was an attempt at developing a visual language for and of the self, as a means of arriving at a particularity of meaning found in the body. By attaining a definition of the self through the language of performance art, the power inferences of the “super ordinate culture” (1) are challenged.

Formal choices made during the performance actions assumed a kind of automatism attributable to the exhaustion that pushed Ramirez-Figueroa beyond pre-contemplated devices. The state of exhaustion was used as a material towards the enactment of altered realities undefined by dominant signs and symbols. The meditative and spiritual processes of “working with the dead”(2) through ritual is defined in the Western aesthetic as a “shamanic” state; however, the shamanic act also carries a particular referentiality of exoticism imbued with colonialism and racism. Ramirez-Figueroa works through compromised referents of ritual in relation to his practice as a Latin American artist, arriving at a place of visual tension where “everything is an exercise to get to the place to forget.”(3). In this work, he was willing to work through the pain and vulnerability of embodied clichés, which were broken down by the expanse of time and by physical exhaustion. His desire was to arrive at a new corporeal/aesthetic meaning that reached beyond the internalized and compromised realm of colonial influence.

The Sun is Crooked in the Sky; My Father is Thrown Over My Shoulders, Naufus Ramirez-Figueroa, 2005. Photo by Miklos Legrady.

“Horkheimer and Adorno (<1944> 1987) wrote a two- page note, appended to The Dialectic of Enlightenment entitled “On the Theory of Ghosts.” … [T]hey believed we needed some kind of theory of ghosts, or at least a way of both mourning modernity’s “wound in civilization”(4) and eliminating the destructive forces that open it up over and over again: Only the conscious horror of destruction creates the correct relationship with the dead: unity with them because we, like them, are the victims of the same condition and the same disappointed hope…from a certain vantage point the ghost also simultaneously represents a future possibility…(5)

The work is informed by familial genealogy, the non-linear and spectral quality of traumatic memory, childhood memories of the 36 year war in Guatemala, the movements of art history and contemporary art, Mayan practices, and the political/environmental influences that formulate ‘mestizo identity’. This 100 hour durational performance took place at Istvan Kantor’s studio (a.k.a. Implant), an open garage/studio facing a side street near Bloor and Lansdowne. The interior room was painted white, and the concrete floor contained a ramped platform leading to the “performance space.” The artist used various materials he found in surrounding areas, such as bricks and the branches of trees, in order to manifest 100 hours of sleepless actions.

“Finally, I have suggested that the ghost is alive, so to speak. We are in relation to it and it has designs on us such that we must reckon with it graciously, attempting to offer it a hospitable memory out of a concern for justice.” (6)

The wrapping of the tree resembled the bandaging of a sprain or wound. The formal associations between bandaging and post-war embodiment in sculpture may be further evidenced as occurring in the post World War Two works of Arte Povera precursor Piero Manzoni. Manzoni used medical bandages, imprints of pliers and tweezers, white linen, and cotton balls as the sculptural materials with which to create associations between bandaging, sterilization, aesthetics and traumatic history.

All the weight of the bandaged tree balanced precariously on its stump, recalling an action/image from one of Ramirez-Figueroa’s previous performances, Original Banana Republic (2002, grunt gallery). The artist bound banana stems to his legs with saran wrap; eventually, his legs resembled amputated limbs. He then managed to raise himself from the floor with extreme effort, using the strength of his arms and upper torso. Upon standing, he stumbled around on these lumbering sculptural constructions. The action spoke of the loss of limbs generated by the 36 year war, and U.S. genocidal labour and land acquisition tactics related to the banana trade — particularly the acquisition of Mayan land by the United Fruit Company.

100 hours of sleepless actions by Naufus Ramirez-Figueroa (numbered 1 to 21)

1. bandaging

He laid branches on the ground in descending order.

The configuration resembled the assemblage of tools for an operation or excavation.

A kettle boiled – the hot water was mixed with beet juice.

Using powdered milk that acted as glue when it dried, he soaked the linen.

Later, torn linen strips were used to bandage the skeleton of a tree.

The skeletal tree embodied the physical presence of the family tree. The tree was whitened through the application of the linen.

Within the western canon, the bandaging action also summoned associations to the post-War paintings of Otto Dix. In the 1934 work Flanders, Dix “reveals a scene from the Western Front, where dead bodies float in water-filled shell-holes while those soldiers still alive resemble rotting tree stumps.” (7) The work was inspired by the novel Le Fe, written by French novelist Henri Barbusse. The main character declares a kind of unromanticized shamanic reference that rejects the human/animalistic distinction created by tropes of “civilized” society. He states, “War is something so animal-like: hunger, lice, slime, these crazy sounds. To see people in this unchained condition is to know something about man”(8). Later in the performance, the artist embodied visual imagery that evoked associations to birds and monkeys. He also adapted items of clothing to double as a balaclava and traditional mask, thus referencing the militarization of both domestic and cultural life.

Post-war artist Otto Dix created representations of veterans who were frequently socially de-valued and made invisible. The situation in post-war Germany found veteran amputees “left to beg on streets where they were frequently stepped over, ignored, or erased from the visual field.” (9) Post-war modernist painters also drew parallels between the mutilated and mechanically enhanced bodies of veterans and the city as a marked and wounded site.” (10) Joseph Beuys’ dictum “show your wound”(11) is also suggestive of a European post-war operative, and was an invitation to precipitate communication through the exposed vulnerability of the artist. Perhaps Ramirez-Figueroa, from his vantage point as a child survivor of war, reconstituted Beuys’ vulnerability with an added child-like element. I am reminded of poet Alejandro Rual Mujica-Olea’s comment during a radio interview with the artist, where he stated that Ramirez-Figueroa “sticks his finger in the wound of Latin America”.(12) The remembering/forgetting traumatic impositions of war from a child’s perspective contain a particular vulnerability reaching beyond the realm of Beuys’ ‘shamanic’ reconfigurations.

2. scrubbing

Ramirez-Figueroa washed his chest with a scrub brush dipped in the boiling water. His skin reddened, the artist later described this act as attending to the site of trauma, which he experienced in his chest at that moment.

3. pooling

Particular attention was paid to wrapping linen around the severed end of the tree, which resembled a bloody stump after beet juice was applied to it repeatedly. Viewers were invited to dab the tree with beet juice as if tending to wounds. The beet juice dripped and pooled beneath the tree from where it hung. The bandaged stump of the tree reached the ground.

The inversion of the tree during the evenings of the performance signified common inversions connected to a country that has suffered the continuous effects of colonization. A Mayan becomes “mestizo” by moving away from his birthplace and adopting different mannerisms and clothing, often as a means of economic survival. A mestizo person becomes white through marriage or education. The artist’s uncle, Byron Figueroa “entered the war (the guerilla movement in Guatemala) a Marxist, and left the war a Mayan.”(13)

The Mayan world tree symbol embodies the axis believed to have been traversed by souls of those deceased, an axis also traveled by religious specialists during ritual. An imagined conduit between heaven and earth, the world tree is symbolized by a hole, pole, tree, or the Milky Way. The sun also runs along this conduit. The archetypical world tree reaches from the center of the earth and connects the upper world to the earth and the underworld. The conduit encompasses spiritual dualism, and may also be the source of “evil winds and sickness”.(14)

One interpretation of Mayan literature based on the advanced methods of Mayan astrology cites the end of the world as occurring on Dec 22, 2012, and describes a world tree axis inversion, in that the sun will change its rotation (the sun/son is crooked in the sky) and the Earth (my father) will turn on its axis – (is thrown over my shoulders)(15). Byron Figueroa interprets Mayan literature in a more practical sense, as the predication of a positive shift in global power relations and environmental degradation that will, in some sense, be marked by the year 2012. The Maya also predicted that we would be eating garbage at this time, Byron Figueroa agrees that this has already occurred in the proliferation of processed foods that we consume.(16)

4. winding

Thin white thread was wrapped around the branches of the tree many times. The spool clattered on the ground.

In Guatemala, we had visited a local healer who used thread similarly as a tool with which to do her work.

Using a pair of scissors, he cut at the threads so that they hung down loosely from the branches.

I remembered that Ramirez-Figueroa had spoken to me of the childhood memory of viewing Vancouver Photoconceptualist Rodney Graham’s work Oak Tree–Red Bluff at the Vancouver Art Gallery. At that time, he was nine or ten years old and had lived in Canada for two years. Graham’s work made an impression, which stayed with him over the years. Regarding this tree inversion image, Rodney Graham has stated, “You don’t have to delve very deeply into modern physics to realise that the scientific view holds that the world is really not as it appears. Before the brain rights it, the eye sees a tree upside down in the same way it appears on the glass back of the large format field camera I use. I chose the tree as an emblematic image because it is often used in diagrams in popular scientific books and because it was used in Saussure’s book on linguistics to show the arbitrary relation between the so-called signifier and the signified.” (17) [italics added]

5. the world tree is upside down/right side up
day turns into night/night turns into day

The tree was suspended from the ceiling with a rope, and became a hanging presence for the duration of the performance. During the day, the tree was hung upside down. At night, the tree was inverted.

Ramirez-Figueroa’s inversion of the tree during the daytime seems to speak of the earthly plane, where man is capable of enacting both generosity and brutality. Feminist scholar Farida Shaheed has stated that, “A century ago, civilian deaths and displacements were a by-product of war, today they seem to be the object of war…[:] In World War I, 14% of the deaths were civilians, today it is estimated that over 90% are civilians, the majority being women and children. In terms of displacement, some 80% of refugees are women and children.”(18) Regarding the incident of male witnessing of events that largely affect women and children, Ramirez-Figueroa stated, “the emphasis has been to talk about the veteran, the guerilla — the official voice of war. Women and children are considered unconscious, hysterical — child memory is seen as half fantasy, half reality and an unreliable form of witnessing. The adult male voice is the authority. Patriarchal supposition is such that male veterans are assumed to have control over their trauma, and therefore can more accurately talk about and represent the experiences of war.”(19)

6. fetal position/corpse

At first, the tree was on the ground, lying sideways, a position that Ramirez-Figueroa’s own body would assume at several points during the performance.

Ramirez-Figueroa counters dominant interpretations of war by incorporating childhood materials and references within his work. In one example, he adopts a fetal/corpse position relative to an abject aesthetic. This strategy has also been used by Ramirez-Figueroa’s contemporary, Regina Galindo in the work No perdemos nada con nacer (We don’t lose anything by being born), Galindo lay naked inside a clear plastic garbage bag, a corpse-like figure amongst the garbage of the Guatemala city dump. Galindo is a young artist now positioned in the post-war context of Guatemala, “a period characterized by the aesthetic of forgetting … [and simultaneously] that of anguish, and inquisition.”(20)

A related past performance White Intravenous, by Ramirez-Figueroa, was presented at the Church of Pointless Hysteria, an artist-run space in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. This area is often cited in the media as Canada’s “poorest neighbourhood”. Ramirez-Figueroa used garbage, medical, and natural materials such as plastic, surgical tape, flour, and intravenous bags filled with milk. The audience was provided with a glossary describing his reference to the materials. Syringes with pink blood denoted an aspect of North American youth culture, described as a ‘synthetic happiness generation.’ Surgical tape wound around the waist referenced an imagined medical technique of “keeping oneself together”. Plastic signified remnants of objects found in the downtown eastside – wrappers, McDonald’s straws, etc., and body bags for anonymous immigrant deaths. Plastic as littered throughout the Third World made reference to disposable countries, overlaid in economies of plastic created through the exportation of cheaply made toys, trinkets and household items sold “cost-effectively” within the North American market. (21)

“The word post-war appears…in the harshness of a grotesque reality….”

“In order to illustrate what post-war artists are, one critic identified them as the “junk generation.’ In general terms there is a phenomenon that occurs with this generation that goes beyond the play with clichés. In and of itself, it is an artistic awakening that is quite strange for the environment. On one hand it reflects the fragment of the complex weft of realities that reinforce and project the cultural, psycho political, social and economic change that we are going through. On the other hand they emerge with provocative proposals for a conventional environment more accustomed to traditional models than to being disturbed by art right in the middle of the street.” [Cazali is referring here to the current practice of public intervention performance in Guatemala City]. (22)

On the second day, struggling with self-consciousness/ consciousness of self, Ramirez-Figueroa stated “I felt like a fool. It was a test of my creativity and limitations.”(23) The birds were loud and noticeable at dawn.

The position he assumed seemed like the birth position in the Frida Kahlo painting, My Birth Later the tree was placed so that the trunk emerged out of the neck of his shirt.

7. the second day,
cocooned then birthing

He urinated into a bowl of powdered milk. He made a cocoon for himself out of linen and rocked, comforting, close to the tree. He washed his clothes and dried them, later he said that they stank of milk. With his upper body shrouded by the linen, he supported his torso in a backwards bend, rocking back and forth on his heels.

“The mestizo child knows that the father exists by the nature of his/her own skin colour, yet the father is a silent symbol or icon of colonial influence. The transference of whiteness in this familial colonial landscape has seen paternal duty to its completion, substituting the normal paternal functions of direct presence and care with racial whitening – a political project of colonialism.”(24) The detached white father may send a milk allowance monthly, the milk in the performance rots over time, and formal considerations become psychic and spiritual in nature, creating tensions that compress time/space continuums. “A sense of shame pervades the performance and is connected to the conditions surrounding the mestizo child.”(25)

8. two chairs in dialogue

A recurring use of two metal chairs facing each other possibly inferred a dialogue between the artist and an absent other/father. I read this image as a kind of gestalt configuration that implied dialogue/ confrontation/identification with the absent other (often assumed to be a parental figure).

The t-shirt seemed transformed into a balaclava, totally covering his face like a member of the guerilla, or that of a political prisoner. He drew an image over this makeshift balaclava with a thick black magic marker. When he was finished, his drawing resembled the mask of a monkey. Later, he turned the t-shirt around and covered his head again. Tufts of hair protruded from the holes and seemed to denote the ears of an animal. With the shirt reversed, it also appeared as if he was looking out of the back of his head. “You’ve got eyes in the back of your head” is a popular term that comes to mind in relation to this action, a reference to the hypervigilant second sense of his surroundings that is possessed by the traumatized subject

In Mexico, the Zapatista National Liberation Army, composed of a few thousand indigenous Mayans, often wear balaclavas, as does Subcommandante Marcos. (Cleverly, indigenous women in Mexico have been known to sell balaclavas embroidered with the EZLN to tourists as a method of raising funds for themselves and the Zapatistas — a type of leftist craft/economy response to capitalist constructs of globalization). (26)

Ramirez-Figueroa had spoken before of his Mayan grandfather – a carver who made masks for local indigenous ceremonies. His grandfather was also a folk dancer who performed a particular indigenous ceremony where men dressed as monkeys held whips and told riddles and jokes to a crowd of onlookers. If a viewer was addressed and neglected to offer money in recompense for his inability to respond to a joke or riddle, he was whipped by the monkey dancer. The artist’s grandfather also performed as a pole flying tree dancer. This ritual encompassed the act of climbing a pole, which the pole dancer tied himself to and threw himself from, spinning with other dancers on ropes from a central pole signifying the world tree.

Earlier that morning, Ramirez-Figueroa had sewn together some linen into a kind of sack, which he stepped into. Lying in the sack, he went inside the tree and wrapped himself loosely around the branches. This action recalled the physicality of a monkey.

9. hooded sitting

He spread a line of powdered milk on the ground around the chairs to form a rectangular shape. Four clear plastic cups were filled with milk and placed on each side of the rectangle. He took off his clothes and pulled his t-shirt over his head. Sitting on one of the chairs with his legs bent and his feet resting on the other chair, he stretched his white cotton t-shirt over his head to cover it.

The absolute stillness of Ramirez-Figueroa’s body in the drinking action reminded me of the painting Sierra Madre (Mother Mountain) by Jose Silva Nogales, a political prisoner in Mexico and a relative of Naufus’ friends in Vancouver. The painting depicts a completely still, balaclava-clad guerilla fading into the foliage of the jungle behind him.

Embodied performative acts where Ramirez-Figueroa assumed the position of the tortured subject suggest a relationship to a kind of intimate violence, one of the most effective psychological tools used against political prisoners. Intermittent kindnesses amongst violent acts, such as the provision of food by the torturer, and the use of domestic props [such as milk with its maternal association] disorient the victim.”(27). Surrender is said to involve the stage of “draining oneself of emotion and resistance as a means of survival”(28). The sleep deprivation that Ramirez-Figueroa undertakes is itself also used as an instrument of torture, and oppositionally, as a means of shamanic transcendence.

10. drinking

Leaving his arms in his sleeves, he folded the t-shirt into his mouth, and later ripped out a hole for the mouth while sitting motionless, barely breathing or moving.

Reaching down, he picked up a glass of milk and placed it in the ripped cotton mouth-hole. He drank the milk by holding the cup in his mouth, tilting his head backwards until it was emptied. He then dropped the cup between his legs where it clattered to the ground. The milk dripped off his lips, belly and groin, as if he were urinating milk. In the background, the tree continued to drip beet juice.

The balaclava/t-shirt became soaked and grey around the mouth opening.

At this point we have reached a half way mark for the performance. In my experience of “endurance witnessing” analysis and experience became blurred, and the artist also reported having gradually lost a sense of internal critique regarding his actions as a result of the exhaustion element of the performance. I am marking this moment in the performance as a viewer by lessening my analysis in this text, and by switching the columns of analysis and description, which I hope will also echo the inversion context that was important to the performance. The image becomes tantamount, as Ramirez-Figueroa approached his intent of making visual language particular, “populating it with his own intention, appropriating the word and adapting it to his own semantic and expressive intention.”(29)

11. stuffing

Later that evening, viewers were asked to stuff the branches of the weed trees under the torso and sleeves of his shirt. It was Canada Day, and firecrackers erupted. A car alarm went off at dusk. After being stuffed with many branches, he walked backwards in time with the car alarm, down the concrete ramp, past the open garage door and into the street. The walk continued backwards; he did not look over his shoulder. It stopped when he reached the wall of the warehouse across the street. The car alarm also stopped. It was windy by the wall where he stood — the grass and trees nearby were swaying in the wind. After standing quietly, he started to loosely jump on the spot to a timed count, with his head tilted slightly down. All the weed tree branches eventually fell out of his clothing as he jumped. Reaching behind his head, he pulled the last branch over his head in a sweeping motion, releasing it from the back of his sweater.

12. dragging

Outside at night, a long piece of muslin was dipped into a bucket filled with milk. Wearing the muslin as a long veil, he dragged the tip of the muslin along the ground by bending his head and walking backwards. His posture conveyed a collapsed, exhausted body. The milk left a trail along the ground that resembled a thick, wavy line. The walk continued around the corner and beyond the block of the studio. He redipped the tip of the muslin into the milk when it ran dry. Ramirez-Figueroa continued this action through this abandoned warehouse neighbourhood until he had used all of the milk mixture.

The action spoke to me of visual art training and its influence within the performance art tradition, as when an artist first takes drawing classes and is instructed to “feel the sensitivity of the line.” I saw associations to the techniques of 1970s conceptual land art in reference to this action, and in particular the work of Richard Long, who conducted extended, performative walks in nature, leaving the mark of his trail upon the natural landscape.

13. Hacking/burning

Outside the studio, Istvan Kantor helped Ramirez-Figueroa create a circle of bricks in order to safely light a fire. Earlier, Ramirez-Figueroa had hacked at the tree with an axe, gradually breaking it into pieces. The fire burned momentarily, but eventually members of the local fire department arrived and told them to extinguish it. The firemen seemed to be aware that the fire was for a performance art event. Prematurely extinguishing the fire was unexpected — the wood was not burned to ashes as intended. Ramirez-Figueroa was left with pieces of wood and ash, as when a body is cremated and pieces of bone remain amongst the ashes.

14. scraping

He scraped the charcoal off the remaining charred branches into a bowl with a pocketknife. The wood was black underneath, and charcoal eventually covered his hands and the inside of his legs. He would come back to this action and continue it several times throughout the day until the wood was fully scraped. The larger pieces of charcoal were ground between two bricks to create a fine, powdered material.

15. biting/chomping

A beet was peeled into the shape of a heart. Winding white thread around the top notch of the heart, he proceeded to hang the carved heart from a long piece of thread hanging from the ceiling of the studio, until it dangled about a foot and a half from the floor. Lying on the ground, he positioned his head underneath it. Using a slow internal rhythm, he lifted his head to meet the level of the beet. He bit at a part of the beet with his mouth each time that he raised his head.

Eventually, beet juice resembling blood began to slowly drip out of the side of his mouth. The beet heart spun around in between bites, but generally did not shift from its dangling position. Ramirez-Figueroa continued this action until the beet was fully consumed, leaving some fibrous material hanging from the end of the string. A portion of the string that had come into contact with his mouth had been dyed red.

16. comparing

He imagined the charred branches to be similar to the bones in his legs. Lying on the ground, he placed similarly sized sticks on his thighs and shins. The scraped sticks were remarkably comparable to bone, and seemed to even have assumed the round hollow indentation marking where the femur inserts into the hip. This action described the connection between the family tree branches and the skeletal structure of the artist.

The carved beet heart created associations to el corazon sangrante (the bleeding heart), a hybrid symbol crossing a spectrum of influences (Catholic, Mayan and Spanish). I was reminded of the milagros of Antigua, small wax sculptures of body parts on red strings sold to the public by local healers. To initiate healing in a particular area of the body, one could choose to buy a corresponding carved wax milagro, place it at the tomb of St. Pedro of Betancourt, and pray for their problems to be solved within that particular body part.

Ramirez-Figueroa stated: “I associate the beets with the small organs or hearts of children. As children in Guatemala, the fear of being kidnapped was constantly present in our lives. It was said that when they abducted you, they would open you up and steal your organs and leave your empty carapace on the street. I heard from other children that your organs would then be sold to Americans and Europeans. These fears, as much as they seemed like urban legends, had very real manifestations in our lives. Two of my childhood neighbourhood friends went missing – later there was evidence that they had been present in an abandoned illegal orphanage.”(30)

17. wrapping

He folded Kraft paper into pieces resembling an envelope and placed a piece of wood inside each package. Using black magic marker, he wrote the names of absent white fathers on the outside of the packages. Ramirez-Figueroa used forms of their names that were endearing, such as “Tate“, the affectionate form of addressing a grandfather or older man. The packages were tied up with white thread and then distributed amongst the audience.

18. grinding/sweeping/ breathing/chewing

He dragged a broom over a pile of fine charcoal shavings. He swept the shavings into a line and then spread the shavings from this thick line into the shape of a rectangle. Repetitively, he dabbed the broom from side to side, trying to create a bed of finely powdered charcoals as the ground for the next action. He sifted dried milk between his hands and eventually created a pile of white powdery material within the upper edge of the black charcoal bed. He sat down at the bottom edge of the rectangle with his legs outspread and marked charcoal on his thighs with his hands. After sitting still for a while, hands at his side, he lay down on his back, and lowered his underwear. Rolling over, he shifted to his belly, and lay in the charcoal bed with his forehead against the pile of white powdered milk. Ramirez-Figueroa later noted that the action seemed to just emerge from the act of breathing. He noticed that the white powder shifted slightly with his breath and revealed the concrete floor. By lifting his head, and breathing through his nose, he observed that he could clear away a spot on the floor. His breathing assumed a deeply rhythmic element as he continued to turn his head from side to side, his breath clearing away more and more of the white powder. As the artist inevitably inhaled the fine charcoal and milk powder substances, the materials slightly mixed together, compromising the “aesthetic purity” of black and white. His breathe also assumed a deeply hoarse quality, lending an asthmatic, repetitive resonance to the action. Having accomplished a circular “breathing space” on the floor, his breath eventually slowed until it stopped. Lifting himself up onto his hands and knees, he started to ingest the remaining charcoal. He chewed handfuls of at a time, which seemed to induce a sense of panic, anxiety and nausea in the viewers, and a viewer was compelled to leave the viewing area. Ramirez-Figueroa also conveyed an impression of strength and endurance in the completion of this action.

This action had to do with a kind of genealogical exorcism. Ramirez-Figueroa cites the influence of Chilean artist Alejandro Jodorowsky. He created what came to be known as “happenings” in Paris. (The term “happening” was created by the later Fluxus movement.) Jodorowsky was interested in non-repeatable events and used smoke, fruit, gelatin, and living animals as materials in his happenings. He created the performative theories of “psychomagic” and “living poetry” which combined performative and ritualistic actions. Jodorowsky hosted an evening in Paris where visitors were encouraged to visit him and discuss their problems. In order to cure his guests of their discomfort, Jodorowsky would prescribe a performative action for them to complete. Jodorowsky also believed in returning to the family tree to heal traumatic wounds. He called the theory of this discomfort and the desire to re-establish contact with the internal mystery of the individual as “efimeros panicos“. He attempted to treat and evoke “efimeros panicos” in his guests through the prescribed performative actions. Jodorowsky’s theories have not been translated to English, and are not presently accessible to English speakers. However, he has greatly influenced the development of performance art in Latin America.

19. vomiting

He smoothed, scratched at, and cleared the space on the floor with the palm of his hand with the intent of removing any remaining charcoal or powder. Opening his mouth wide, a globular mix of charcoal, bits of white powder, and saliva slid from his mouth onto the floor in a pile. The mixture was an incredibly shiny, black substance that resembled a combination of tar and fecal matter. Ramirez-Figueroa remained in this same position momentarily and eventually covered the regurgitated mixture with the surrounding material of finely ground charcoal.

20. Peeling

Gathering up a pile of beets into his t-shirt, he also moved a remaining pile of milk powder towards a mound of charcoal by pushing the material with his feet. He peeled the beets individually with a knife while continuously holding this pile of beets in the bottom of his t-shirt. The visual image resembled a kind of side satchel of small, bulbous organs. As he peeled the beets, he tucked the carvings down the neck of his t-shirt, and they accumulated to form the shape of a distended or pregnant belly beneath his t-shirt. His t-shirt became stained with various shades of grey and red, resulting from the mixing of remnant charcoal and beet juice. The bloating, and swelling of his exhausted body seemed to relate to earlier references of war and torture. He started swaying slightly while standing in this upright position, and at one point he almost fell backwards, which frightened several viewers. It seemed as if he might not have control of falling asleep while standing. Holding all the peels of the beets in his belly under his t-shirt, he used electrical tape to secure all of the materials within this simulated pregnant belly. Ramirez-Figueroa reached down for a bottle of water and held the water in his mouth while simultaneously tilting back his head. The water dribbled down the side of his mouth and dripped onto his t-shirt. With his arms at his side, he repeated this carefully timed action, while releasing the water slowly from his mouth. Over time, the water started to dye his neckline red, and as the milk powder, beet peels, and water further combined, milk dripped from the underside of his makeshift swollen belly. When he had finished the water, he released the electrical tape from the bottom of his t-shirt, and the beets fell out onto the floor at his feet.

Ramirez-Figueroa uses abject methods of smearing and ingestion as another means by which to arrive at a place beyond the fixity of meaning inherent in the act of forgetting in a post-war, post- colonial context.

The concluding sequence of Ramirez-Figueroa’s performance featured the act of expulsion. Kristeva explains the staining, ingestion and expulsion of the familial (colonial) construct, as enacted through the body: “Loathing an item of food, a piece of filth, waste or dung. The spasms and vomiting that protect me. The repugnance, the retching that thrusts me to the side and turns me away from defilement, sewage, and muck. The same of compromise, of being in the middle of treachery. The fascinated start that leads me toward and separates me from them … nausea makes me balk at that milk cream, separates me from the mother and father who proffer it. ‘I’ want none of that element, sign of their desire; ‘I’ do not want to listen, ‘I’ do not assimilate it, ‘I’ expel it.” (31)

Kristeva further positioned the abject in the context of forgetting the presence of refuse, and of the corpse “… it shows me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live… There I am at the border of my condition as a living being. My body extricates itself, as being alive, from that border. (The abject) disturbs identity, system and order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. the in-between, the ambiguous, the composite.”(32) Ramirez-Figueroa’s performance The Sun is Crooked in the Sky; My Father Is Thrown Over My Shoulders is an investigation of reclaiming the other half of the image and the word, and reconstructing a visual language of representation that is previously situated half elsewhere, “at the borderline between oneself and the other.” (33)


(1) Gates, Henry Louis Jr. “Writing ‘Race’ and the Difference it Makes” in Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992) p. 51.

(2) Ramirez-Figueroa, Naufus. Interview by Irene Loughlin. Vancouver, February 2006.

(3) Ramirez-Figueroa, Naufus. Interview by Irene Loughlin. Vancouver, February 2006.

(4) Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor Adorno. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Trans. John Cumming. (NY: Continuum <1944> 1987).

(5) Gordon, Avery F. Ghostly Matters: Haunting and The Sociological Imagination. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997). pp. 19-20.

(6) Gordon, Avery F. Ghostly Matters: Haunting and The Sociological Imagination. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997). p. 64.

(7) Seekins, Sandra. “Prosthesis as Souvenirs of War: Otto Dix’s Representations of Veterans in Weimar Germany”. Department of History of Art, University of Michigan. Delivered at the conference “Souvenir” Ann Arbor, October 1998. [See: http://www.umich.edu/~tapassoc/souvenir.htm]

(8) Ibid.

(9) Ibid.

(10) Ibid.

(11) Tisdall, Caroline. “Joseph Beuys: Bits and Pieces”. Tate Modern Talk. The Social Sculpture Research Unit. [See: http://owww.brookes.ac.uk/schools/apm/social_sculpture/tisdall/TateModernLecture.htm]

(12) Mujica-Olea, Alejandro Rual. Co-op radio interview on El Mundo de la Poesia with Naufus Ramirez-Figueroa. Vancouver, 2002.

(13) Figueroa, Byron. In conversation with Irene Loughlin. Vancouver, November 29, 2003.

(14) Sosa, John R. The Maya Sky, the Maya World: a symbolic analysis of Maya cosmology. (Ann Arbor: University Microfilms International, 1985). v. 498.

(15) Ramirez-Figueroa, Naufus. In conversation with Irene Loughlin. Vancouver, February 2006.

(16) Figueroa, Byron. In conversation with Irene Loughlin. Vancouver, November 29, 2003.

(17) Graham, Rodney “Interview with the artist” by Anthony Spira, curator, Whitechapel Art Gallery. [See: http://www.whitechapel.org/content.php?page_id=461]

(18) Shaheed, Farida. “Militarization and Global Conflict” from the plenary session Women Challenging the New Political and Military Order. (Association for Women’s Rights in Development, 2002). [See: http://www.awid.org/forum2002/plenaries/day2farida.html]

(19) Ramirez-Figueroa, Naufus. In conversation with Irene Loughlin. Vancouver, February 2006.

(20) Toledo, Aida. “Poetry, Body and Performance as True Aesthetic Emergencies in Today’s Guatemala” in Temas Centrales. Ed. Cuauhtemoc Medina. (San Jose: Teoretica Galleria, 2002). p. 358.

(21) Loughlin, Irene and Ramirez-Figueroa, Naufus. “Glossary of Terms” from the performance White Intravenous at the Church of Pointless Hysteria. Vancouver, 2002.

(22) Cazali, Rosina. “Octubreazul to the point of Madness: Emerging Art in the postwar Period in Guatemala”. Art Nexus No. 43 March 2002.

(23) Interview with Naufus Ramirez-Figueroa by Irene Loughlin. Vancouver, February 2006.

(24) Ibid.

(25) Ibid.

(26) https://www.peacecoffee.com/pcfg/0402/

(27) Copelon, Rhonda. “Intimate Terror: Understanding Domestic Violence as Torture” in Human Rights of Women: National and International Perspectives. Ed. Rebecca Cook, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994). p. 138.

(28) Ibid.

(29) Gates, Henry Louis Jr. “Writing ‘Race’ and the Difference it Makes” in Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992) p. 44.

(30) Ramirez-Figueroa, Naufus. Interview by Irene Loughlin. Vancouver, February 2006.

(31) Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. (NY: Columbia University Press, 1982) [See: http://social.chass.ncsu.edu/wyrick/debclass/krist.htm]

(32) Ibid.

(33) Gates, Henry Louis Jr. “Writing ‘Race’ and the Difference it Makes” in Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992) p. 44.


I think that ‘physical space’ is a reflection of state of soul; physics and psyche influence each other… physics changes into psyche through a succession of facts. The physics of geometry versus the psyche of memory.

—Artur Tajber

Though the concept of the psyche is an accepted signifier of non-somatic experience in 21st century western culture, the concept of physics, from simple to quantum mechanics, functions as a scientific reality that refutes any relationship with the psyche. Only in the works of artists and very alternative thinkers do we find a meeting place for these concepts, a plane where both function.(1) TORONTO TABLEABLE, the performance piece from the WALK’MAN series that Artur Tajber presented on March 14, 2005 at Gallery 1313, conceptually closes the gap between physics and psyche, science and the soul.

During Artur Tajber’s performance, at any given moment, we observe TABLEABLE multiple times: as an immediate performance, as a shadow performance, and layered over and responsive to a videotape of previous “TABLEABLE” performances projected on the wall behind Tajber. His multiple pasts in motion function as the set and the scenery– a physical and psychic environment where geometry and memory are ever present. The video projection is composed of at least two different time frames superimposed, edited so that simultaneous actions feed or respond to each other. At the same time, present action is in the process of becoming past action, as the performance is being documented.

In TABLEABLE, Performer-Tajber engages in a virtually continuous motion using the hooked handle of an umbrella to manipulate a table and a chair in interaction with the Video-Tajber, thus continuously constructing the Shadow-Tajber. The Performer-Tajber is the only conscious player, capable of changing the course of events mirrored by the Shadow-Performer, but not able to change (at least in real time) the past, the video projection of other performances out of which this investigation emerges. The Butterfly Effect comes to mind, a physics theory suggesting that the flapping of butterfly wings in one continent can be the contributing factor that causes a tornado in another continent. Perhaps Tajber’s TABLEABLE is similarly responsive to initial conditions of the WALK’MAN series, influenced by chaos rather than the ’domino effect’ of linear responsibility.

The Shadow-Performer cannot be manipulated; he will always appear along the floor and wall as a flat black reproduction of Tajber’s actions, but his performance can be distorted by lighting techniques. This elongated specter is a slave to Tajber’s engagement with the table, chair and umbrella. Rhythmically, his silhouette blocks out sections of the projection like a Lautrec poster of Valentine dancing at the Moulin Rouge, in a most imaginative transformation using the physics of light. Actions on film precede actions on the gallery floor, and the shadow intercepts their relationship.

We accept psyche and physics to be ’real‘ things, but they are just names we give to two different categories of experience and observation. Physics describes the plane of visible movement and placement of matter that is physically readable and repeatable. In order for the planes of physics and psyche to meet, semiosis must be suspended. Though it is impossible to restrict signifiers, one can try to approach the work, at least initially, without imposing or extracting meanings inherent in the symbolic nature of the materials by observing through the eyes of a scientist, a so-called ‘objective’ observer. We can pretend to remove ourselves from the role of ’critic‘ – the cultural super-ego.(2) We can consider the object we name “the umbrella” not for its function as an object that protects us from the elements, but for how it is used in the piece, as an extension of the artist’s arm and a hook that assists the artist to move a table around… and around and around… the mediator between the performer and the resistance of gravity and friction that the laws of physics impose on the table.

Throughout TABLEABLE, I find it impossible to avoid recognizing ’scenes‘ evoked by Tajber, such as the image of ’an elegant man seated on a chair atop a table holding an open umbrella’ — only one of the explorations the artist encounters among many less personally rich signifying explorations. For me, this scene captures a sense of daily human experience, reverberating outward into a relationship with its audience in the same way that the piece consistently reverberates in space and time with its multiple selves. Yet the ‘scenes’ are not a destination. In this work the recognizable appears to have equal value with the incomprehensible, Both are equalized in that they are constructed by associations, by relationships, by congruencies with anything they happen to be in association, relationship or congruent with or to, with things in space and time. The relationship of TABLEABLE to space and time is to itself. Order is not Tajber’s goal. This is immediately and a little distractingly apparent in simple visual cues. For example, the table used in the videos is strikingly different from the one Tajber pushes around the gallery floor. Present action, though superimposed on past action, is not a duplication, but a response in present time with present materials. New choreography is being created out of different events in another time, at the same time.

This is a mirror of the psyche, as our thinking and emotional response processes in the present are wedded and maybe welded to past associations. At any moment the conscious artist can deflect but not totally control the projectory into a different reality composed of our moment-to-moment emergence from the backward-in-time continuum. Physics and psyche meet through the superimposition of time finessed by the performance. Quantum physics’ concepts of time dilation occur naturally in the psyche and in outer space. Only when the clock ticks on earth do we have artificial time, created by man to give an impression of measured order, even as human experience tells us that time is abstract and its duration is created by our response to events. A series of events such as changing seasons is a sequence of events, not a measurement of time.

After the performance, Tajber was asked questions regarding the symbolic meaning of the table, and the significance of that particular table. He asserted that the table has no symbolic value – what is important is the relationship that is developed and explored between him and the table during performance. Thus, the table comes into the piece lifeless (arbitrarily purchased we learned from the Sally Ann, a discard), with intention by the artist not to exploit its history. Therefore, the table begins as a dead, inanimate physical structure, is externally animated for the duration and ends as a completed exploration, again a physically dead structure ready to be returned to the Salvation Army! The reproduction created by technology is inorganic, therefore lifeless. Though animation can be seen, the ultimate goal of return to stasis is maintained. Approaching TABLEABLE psychoanalytically, I was interested in applying Freud’s controversial theory of the Death Drive in response to the turning in on itself and repetition in and of the piece. Freud considered himself a man of science; no soul came forth out of this death. The Death drive is constructed on a theory of desire for stasis, as all life progresses intentionally toward death, a return to an original pre-organic state; in TABLEABLE process is the exhaustion of exploration, when the table returns to its original unsymbolic stasis.

The other side of the psychoanalytic coin is transformation, a Jungian construct that involves new life emerging from the old, within the psyche. Jung’s work is concerned with transformation and individuation, psyche/soul during and after life. “Physical space is a reflection of state of soul,” says Tajber. TABLEABLE evolving out of the WALK’MAN series is about relatedness in all its variants and richness. Tajber describes his initiation into an altered attitude of walking upon witnessing thousands of singing birds flying in structurally complex forms in many planes while he stood on the Lagan River Bridge in Belfast. This experience affected his consciousness and relatedness, not his soma, but the experience has been transformed into a different way of being in the concrete world. He now walks freely, “hangs about”, does not walk toward. In physics terms WALK’MAN can only be measured in scalar terms, absence of direction, not as a vector measurement that includes direction. This factor alone creates scientific chaos, due to the element of time. In Jungian terms, the giving up of direction, the sacrifice of controlling the destination of the situation, allows the possibility of ’being‘ in the situation. This is what leads to transformation. Tajber talks of the layers of his experience, of always doing many things at the same time and valuing them as chaos that “has a common and harmonious denominator.” Abandoning direction but including time as the third dimension, Tajber uses performance as another layer in the chaos of the writing, drawings, photographs, and film work that he has done since 1995, and trusts that this compilation of chaos, particularly through performance, will “maintain my independence from what I do not like – circumstances, offices and establishment; to keep the distance; to have an alternative.” Psychoanalytically, it maintains his capacity to be becoming all the time.

For me, the elegance and eloquence of the piece and the performer were and continue to be an enriching experience. My experience was enlivened, of course, by my initiation into the performance art community of Toronto – I will never again have that intriguing sense of the unfamiliar that was present for me attending the performance at Gallery 1313. Having the persona of the ‘outsider’ in that intimate space contributed to the dance of subjectivity/objectivity that gave me an arena of play in response to the experience. As the second person to enter the gallery, I made ‘an entrance’ for the artist as he spoke with the organizer and the ticket taker. I seemed to be the only person who knew no one else in the space, and I was bemused that, curiously, I was the only blonde woman in the room. A pleasant self-consciousness made me performative, a very slight disturbance, like the butterfly wings affecting initial conditions. Psyche and soma. I found Tajber very attractive, particularly during the discussion period after the piece and film, when I egocentrically perceived (or misperceived) that he directed many of his answers toward me, looking into the eyes of my ‘mystery woman’ persona. Twenty-five years ago I would have intuitively known whether it was OK to go home with the artist. Ah, transformation and the strangeness of being middle aged, single and new to this state. I slipped out quickly, and left it a mystery whether my flapping butterfly wings could start a little tornado.


(1) A recent exception to this is the film “What the Bleep do We Know”. The science of physics is slowly incorporating concepts that art has always contained.

(2) Tajber’s life as an artist began within a political regime that censored art. His work became performance, in order to be to be ’outside‘ the line of vision and control of an ordering social element.

Five Holes: reminiSCENT

reminiSCENT, curated by Jim Drobnick and Paul Couillard, is the third instalment in FADO’s performance series, Five Holes, which examines the significance of the body and the senses. 

If the sense of smell appears to have been eclipsed by the other senses in Western culture, there is one realm in which it retains an almost mythic stature—memory. reminiSCENT acknowledges the powerful relationship between smell and memory, and explores the artistic and cultural potential of this undervalued sense. Documentation in literature and science indicates that no other sense evokes memory as intensely as smell. For Marcel Proust, a whiff of madeleine conjured up the world of childhood; for Helen Keller, smell was a “potent wizard” that transported one across thousands of miles. Even newborns, after just a few days, recognize and remember their mothers via the distinctiveness of smell. As compelling as these olfactory experiences are, there is a tendency to regard smells purely on the level of immediacy.

Yet fragrances also bear complex social meanings. How, what and why we smell are subject to many cultural influences—one only has to consider hygiene, and the myriad ways in which the body is bathed, cared for and scented, to appreciate the way smell plays a role in embodying and transmitting culture. In short, smell is as much a learned, cultural practice as it is a physical act of perception.

The five projects in reminiSCENT focus on both of these aspects of scent, as a practice and a physical act. Smell and memory can interact in diverse ways, especially when memory is considered via its multiple dimensions: personal, cultural, social and historical. How, for instance, do odours affect the self and the narrative of one’s life? How can scents symbolize or mark political moments and historical eras? In what ways are aromas significant to the creation of cultural memories and identity? How do power and status play out on an olfactory level? Such questions are implicitly raised in the performative installations of reminiSCENT.

Through faux marketing campaigns, quasi-scientific experiments, intimate encounters, unrehearsed rendezvous, and indecent appropriations of public space, these artists engage with the spectrum of smell from the everyday to the abject. Using organic substances, synthesized scents, perfumes, ambient odours, fragrant language and aromatized bodies, these projects foreground the diverse potential of smells in discourse, experience and culture. Visitors may feel their olfactory abilities being tested and their preconceptions about the sense of smell challenged as the role of scent is foregrounded in the contexts of race, tourism, perfume, domesticity and sexuality.

While the main premise of reminiSCENT concerns the role of scent in memory, there is also a more general imperative to recollect the sense of smell itself and its place in culture as a whole. The progressive deodorization of homes, buildings and public spaces since the nineteenth century has created what one geographer calls “blandscapes,” contemporary places that are sensorially numb and devoid of perceptual interest. The artworks of reminiSCENT symbolically and viscerally reconnect visitors with the smell of natural processes and material existence. Even with the rampant commercialization of olfaction in the past decade, evidenced by the profusion of commodities imbued with scents and the appropriation of aromatherapy for air fresheners, it is important to remember that smell has a meaningfulness outside of corporate marketing and brand-name identity. Smell is often declared the oldest of the senses, and this curatorial project rediscovers its capacity for art, knowledge and social significance.


Pull Up To The Bumper, by Clara Ursitti, occurs in a white stretch limousine, the acme of celebrity display and mobile partying. For selected performance-goers and chance passers-by, an intimate conversation and olfactory experience awaits as they cruise the streets of Toronto. The limo’s sensuous, private interior, complete with refreshments and other luxury comforts, is a chamber redolent with the spirit of seduction. In this gender reversal, a woman holds the balance of wealth, status and sexual agency as the artist inquires into the dynamics of stardom and urban prowling.

On The Scent by Helen Paris and Leslie Hill, in collaboration with Lois Weaver, reconfigures an apartment with olfactory performances and interventions. Visitors journey through a series of visceral encounters that infuse the residence with heightened experiential potential. A trail of scents leads to stories and confessions wafting unexpectedly through the space and secreted away in compartments and corners. Reflecting upon the significance of smell in everyday life, this aromatized environment intensifies the role scent plays in identity, emotion, place and memory. Each performance lasts 30 minutes and is performed for 2 audience members. Please reserve your spot, there are a maximum of 40 participant spots in total.

Cheli Nighttraveller’s untitled performance addresses racism operating at the level of the body and hygiene. Since the era of first contact, the so-called “odour of the other” has served as a pernicious means by which European colonizers stigmatized First Nations peoples. Reflecting at the edge of a fountain in Berczy Park, Nighttraveller recalls an episode in the life of Quannah Parker, the last chief of the Comanches, who once caused a stir by bathing in a public fountain. The artist will satirically confront the misconceived but persistent fiction of “cultural stench.”

Inspired by the legendary exoticism and adventure of The Seven Seas, Millie Chen and Evelyn Von Michalofski provide an occasion for virtual travel with The Seven Scents. Cruise ship deck chair recliners face the waters of Lake Ontario and invite bystanders to lie back, relax, listen to a series of soundscapes and inhale the ambiance of distant locales. Like spa therapists, the artists will gently facilitate each lounger’s sensorial reverie. Distilling together sound and scent, romance and reality, the piece evocatively contemplates the fantasies of escape and the economic actualities of tourism.

Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan’s Scentbar promises unique, personalized scents scientifically tailored to each client’s memories, anxieties and desires. Trained technicians will tally the answers to visitors’ scent-questionnaires and concoct custom-made perfumes in their laboratory cum parfumerie. Drawing from a top-secret odour palette, their potions transcend the use of scent for fashion or flirtation. These one-of-a-kind distillations connect the wearer intimately and olfactively to the complexities of the contemporary world—they are fragrances for troubled times.


\Trans*la”tion\, n. [F. translation, L. translatio a transferring, translation, version. See Translate, and cf. Tralation.]
1. The act of translating, removing, or transferring; removal; also, the state of being translated or removed; as, the translation of Enoch; the translation of a bishop.
2. The act of rendering into another language; interpretation; as, the translation of idioms is difficult.
3. That which is obtained by translating something a version; as, a translation of the Scriptures.
4. (Rhet.) A transfer of meaning in a word or phrase, a metaphor; a tralation. [Obs.] –B. Jonson.
5. (Metaph.) Transfer of meaning by association; association of ideas. –A. Tucker. (1)
by Johanna Householder

My Japanese translator was killed. He was found stabbed to death in his university in a corridor, and the evidence found leads directly to the Iranian state. … The Italian translator … was likewise stabbed and fortunately survived. The Italian government took no steps.

– Salman Rushdie (2)

…translation is a treacherous business; states as well as artists seem to take interest in its attempts and invest in its outcomes. One would be foolhardy to attempt it without serious consideration. And yet we rush in, trying to figure things out — words, gestures — trying to fill in gaps, intuit, see through the wordage to the thoughts behind. We try to gauge accuracy in that most inaccurate of practices. We do try.

And so, trying and failing to find a word that meant precisely the same thing in French as in English for the title/touchstone of a cross-lingual project, curators Paul Couillard and Éric Létourneau decided to evade translation and its vicissitudes; evade by exploding. Pas de traduction! And shift the focus to the phenomenological, “… the title reflects how the practice of performance privileges direct action and shared presence as a way of expressing ideas and moments that are ephemeral and essentially untranslatable.”(3)

Now, I think it could be argued that translating actions into words and vice versa may possibly be the chief occupation of humankind and since Couillard and Létourneau, also decided to hire two writers to do just that, perhaps they are being a bit coy. We must note that from a global perspective the monolingual country is a rarity.

“PAS DE TRADUCTION dances among the ambiguities of what needs no translation, what cannot be translated, and what we refuse to translate, focusing on the interpretation process between artist, audience and location.” (4)

Ah yes well, we do try, but we fail. We cannot capture, we cannot ever capture what we saw, and how we felt when we saw it.

6. (Physics) Motion in which all the points of the moving body have at any instant the same velocity and direction of motion; — opposed to rotation.(5)

Armand Vaillancourt
Constanza Camelo
Jocelyn Robert
Sylvette Babin
Sylvie Cotton

Eric Letourneau

Johanna Householder
Sonia Pelletier

Pas de traduction
about the artists


Constanza Camelo has set up a card table in a very small inner city park, Bellevue Park in the Kensington Market area of Toronto. It’s a sweet, damp summer morning and the park is just waking up. On one of the paths through the park she’s laid out the outline of her body in tape on the gravel, evoking the chalked outline that police make around a body. Dressed in a cheap plastic rain covering, she sits on a bench next to the bronze statue of Al Waxman..(6) She’s given Waxman a wrestler’s mask that looks like The Scream, but he’s pushed it casually back on his head. Constanza changes benches, gazing pensively into the park. She confronts Al and then takes his mask herself, placing it on the back of her head. The tape on the front of her raincape reads “artista.”

She kneels and reads from Al’s plaque: “Trust your gut instincts, there’s a lot to do down the road, there’s always more, in small matters trust your mind, but in the important decisions of life, trust your heart.”

Encountering this quotation earlier, Constanza had inferred the possibility of revolution. (Retroactively, I reflect upon the likelihood of Toronto commemorating a revolutionary in one of its parks.) And from this she divined (the roles of) the artist and the activist as possible positions for herself in a dichotomous world. Traces of the stains of colonization and post-colonialism emerge as she seeks to be understood in a “third language.” How am I perceived differently in each language and where does each perception place me temporally? Past, present, future … in the present, l’activiste est mort.

She crawls a bit further forward to a pair of boxing gloves. They’re Canadian gloves, red and white with maple leaves. She puts them on and immediately cuts several slits in them with an exacto knife. My guess is that she doesn’t really want to fight. She strides down the path to the body-outline and lies down in it. The tape on the back of her raincape reads “activista.”

She lies still for three or four minutes – long enough that the kids in the park start to notice her and come over. Abruptly she stands up, takes up the tape and strides over to her cardtable, where lovely plaster doves with red ribbons at their necks sit like prizes at the CNE.(7) The sign taped to one side of the table reads: El arma mas efectiva para matar el aburrimiento. The park kids are immediately at her:

– “Can I play?” “Can I play?”
– “sit down.”
– “Can my cousin help me?”
– “of course.”… “This is my magazine… this is the most effective weapon to kill boredom.”
– “uh-oh,” says skinny eight-year old “time’s gonna kill me! Can I do it at my nonna’s, its going to take an hour!”
– “You have to kill time — we are here to kill time. ok?”

It’s WordSearch — in Spanish. If you win, you win a pigeon. If Constanza wins you have to answer two questions. You have to tell her your birthdate and your favourite way to “kill time.”

Constanza is drawing upon her own experience of boredom, of killing time, during her first months of exile from Colombia, eight years ago. She was in a country where and a time when she was out of language. Playing wordgames in Spanish, was a ritual of sorts, a bond to a language she had to relinquish.

Ten kids cluster around, kibitzing, “I’m the man,” “you suck,” with an outer circle of adults and audience, while the battles rage. It’s a good scene in the misty park. The feeling is open, generous, but with some tough competition going on. Killing time can be serious, and she’s activated them, inscribing “a temporary, utopian territory over the existing landscape.”(8)


We watch Constanza and her opponents, completely absorbed in their play, and then pick up our bikes to cycle down to the Scadding Court Park wading pool, where Sylvette Babin is attaching a megaphone snout to her face.

She’s got the guts of a harmonica clenched in her teeth, so when she stands in the wading pool and breathes the reedy tones issue from the homemade mouthpiece, a silver piece of stovepipe about eight inches long, duct-taped to her head. Inhale, honnk; exhale, tweeet. She’s dressed like the soloist of an absurd orchestra — a long black scoop-necked gown, which drags in the water as she starts to circle the pool. The effort of walking briskly through the filling pool labours her breathing. hoonnk tweeet hoonnk tweeet hoonnktweeet hoonnktweeet. She makes a chalkmark on the edge of the pool, then wades back in and starts running. Around and around, hoonnktweeet hoonnktweeet hoonnktweeet hoonnktweeet. Alternately running and walking in the filling pool, her dress dragging, making marks. In the background, a city pool with a couple of cold kids and a bored lifeguard. Eventually the misty morning coalesces into afternoon rain, and the lifeguard clears the pool. He comes over to the fence behind. Honk! Tweet! he shouts. The wading pool starts to empty, and Sylvette strides on, running and walking, around and around and around and around, grimly determined, very damp, her thick red braid uncoiling. Tiring, she take off the metal snout, but continues around, swirling the water down the drain, one note of the harmonica left… peeep peeep peeeep peeep peeeep.

“Is it Wicca?” asks a passerby (with all that counter-clockwise motion, one might wonder) “or performance art?” A public/private ceremony.


A few dozen yards away on the south side of the park, Sylvie Cotton has begun hanging loonies in a tree. She’s found a beautiful tree-shaped tree, a round ball of branches on a thick stalk, where someone has left some bedding underneath.

Sylvie’s arms are festooned with little clear bags, each holding a golden coin, there must be over a hundred. She decorates the low branches and then, given a boost, she climbs up to put some up high, almost out of reach, she climbs. It’s becoming a fairy tale, a childhood fantasy, the answer to our prayers… The Money Tree. It’s green and rich in the park, but it’s a wino park too and a cop on a bicycle questions some picnickers. He doesn’t come over though. Higher into the branches she goes. Robin Hood, the Easter Bunny. We can hear the noise of a car race(9) in the background. Sylvie climbs down and steps away. We love the tree. We wish every tree in the park could be covered in the same way every morning. Every wino could wake up to a branch full of money over his head. People walking through admire it, but they don’t touch. When we come back an hour later, ever last cent is gone.

The powerful attraction of this work lies not in its overt generosity (and surely it would be difficult not to see it as generous) but in the way we are the makers of the work (not authors) in a sense very like that of Gestalt dream analysis which asks the dreamer to position herself as every aspect of the dream: we are the tree, the climber, the viewers and … the money. We see ourselves as active participants in the economy of this work. And as Bruce Barber has discussed in “The Gift in Littoral Art Practice” this casts this work into a practice which he has called “donative” — a work which uses gifting to interpret the economics of an art practice. In fact three of the five performances in this series, Sylvie’s certainly, but also those by Constanza Camelo and Jocelyn Robert might be examined in this context. As Barber explains:

Claude Levi Strauss argued that “The automatic laws of the cycle of reciprocity are the unconscious principle of the obligation to give, the obligation to return a gift and the obligation to receive” (1987:43) But as Bourdieu demonstrates in his critique of Levi-Strauss’s structural logic of the (Maussian) law of reciprocity, in reality “the gift may remain unreciprocated” (98). … this realisation would necessitate that the givers themselves become the first targets of conscientization. But each cultural intervention, exemplary or not, engages “a logic of practice” that encourages an infinite variety of exchanges or gifts, challenges, ripostes, reciprocations, and repressions to occur. (These) examples of operative art practice have the capacity to creatively engage their public in conscientization and in this sense alone provide service of some social and cultural value. But in accordance with Bourdieu’s wry observation on the politics of giving and receiving these examples acknowledge also:
The simple possibility that things might proceed otherwise than as laid down by the `mechanical laws’ of the `cycle of reciprocity’ (and that this) is sufficient to change the whole experience of practice and, by the same token its logic.(99)
…Bourdieu’s logic of practice privileges individual agency, in all its unpredictability and contrariness, as the primary component of a generative model of giving (and understanding). Perhaps this logic of practice, like that promoted by Habermas himself “provides an alternative to money and power as a basis for societal integration.” (Calhoun 1992:31) And without an acknowledgement of individual agency within communicative action, that is of the potential for contrariety – the act of giving, the gift of food, the gift of labour, the gift of blood, and of life itself, would seem valueless. (10)

Sylvie speaks of her work as addressing distribution and infiltration and calls attention to the fact that “the human exchange” is the principal material of the work of art. “… desire or life itself becomes the real nature of the performance and gives the work its real quality of ephemerity and immateriality. My work emerges from issues oriented by the relation between social and individual needs.”(11)

Sylvie Cotton’s performance map
Sylvie Cotton’s notes from the Round Table discussion

It was mentioned in the press release for these performances that “The title (“no translation”) refers light-heartedly to the traditional tensions between English and French Canada.”(12) Now probably this should read between English and French in Canada, as of course one of the sites of tension is what we call the places — both the province and the language — from which this “performance community” comes. We in “the rest” of Canada have been taught (by Armand Vaillancourt among others) to take pains in this particular translation — Québec and not French Canada — is the place these folks are from. PAS DE TRADUCTION!

Main Entry: trans·late
Pronunciation: tran(t)s-‘lAt, tranz-; ‘tran(t)s-“lAt, ‘tranz-
Function: verb
Etymology: Middle English, from Latin translatus (pp. of transferre to transfer, translate), from trans- + latus, past participle of ferre to carry — more at TOLERATE, BEAR
Date: 14th century
1 a : to bear, remove, or change from one place, state, form, or appearance to another : TRANSFER, TRANSFORM
b : to convey to heaven or to a nontemporal condition without death (13)

Now Ed Johnson drives his van up into the park and starts to unload Armand Vaillancourt’s parade pieces. Cloaks, cows’ skulls, pieces of metal, a huge rope net, white flags on blue poles. People are enjoined to take up these emblems, some dragooned. Some grumble on the outskirts, not sure whether they want to be made into the spectacle. They are given green robes. Armand himself puts on a huge blue tarp cape, a black rubber skullcap over his snowy shoulder length hair and then a mask headpiece made from a cow’s pelvic bone. It has great bony protuberances that look like an owl’s ears. Passersby and audience are costumed in cloaks and put under the rope net. Istvan Kantor and his kids provide the core. Some have blank white flags. A decidedly medieval feel is developing; The Children’s’ Crusade, “Bring out yer dead!”, a morality play without the oxcarts. Armand instructs them to be careful not to poke each other in the eye with the cow skulls. Gradually the mass of the group takes shape, about twenty or twenty-five. A woman who had joined Darren O’Donnell’s Talking Creature(14) earlier in the day, is further exploited (no value judgment here – she was willing) as the central yellow-cloaked female principal. The shoes she’s wearing will surely give her blisters. Two strong men are invited to carry the poles from which hung metal plates. As they walk the plates clang together, summoning, announcing the procession.

Armand exhorts them to moan …”the torture, the exploitation without words of the planet, the earth… think about that and let’s concentrate, let’s not make sound while very superficial or out of context. I propose that you just play with your throat…. Oooowauggggghhhh…. Not maybe all the time….and some people could say ‘rape’ some say ‘war’ ‘democracy’ ‘false democracy’ build your own context.”

They walk from the park along Dundas St. to Kensington Market. In his massive blue cape escorted by the Jeanne d’Arc in yellow he has a commanding presence and can moan from his bowels. “We keep it serious, eh we don’t joke about it. It’s a serious matter.”

I had the impression that Armand was simply constructing a sculpture, a moving sculpture, and a kind of tableau vivant, the participants his raw material. It looks as if the Burghers of Calais have decided to protest the amalgamation proposed by the provincial government. For fifty years he’s been doing this. (He’s a pioneer in the field of art actions and performance manoeuvers, creating happenings and political protests in urban and rural Quebec since 1953.(15) )

So this is a generic march of gloom, which the marketgoers could construe in any way that seems appropriate to them. Accompanying them from a journalistic distance, I’m reluctant to interpret this image/event for the folks who think I may know. What are they protesting? ‘No translation’ I remind myself. Animal rights vegetarians? Pro-choice or anti-choice? Ban the Bomb? We don’t usually see religious penitents on the street except on Good Friday. Your interpretation is as good as mine.

Solemnly but gamely they trudge off, clanging and moaning. In its generic nature this runaway public sculpture is packed with contradictions, which I must assume that Vaillancourt, with his long history of community actions, understood. It reminds me of Robin Collyer’s photo landscapes in which all the signage has been erased leaving blank awnings and billboards: message = no message.

Night, route 47, Québec. Sometime in the 1980s. Rain. As Armand Vaillancourt nears the site of his studio and foundry he can see that something is amiss. Earlier that evening he had been at an official reception in Ottawa. The kind where artists, arts bureaucrats and politicians meet to ‘celebrate’ the arts. The kind of situation that Armand has frequently turned into a forum for symbolic action in support of his political views. He turns his car into the lane. He can see muddy ruts where large trucks have been in and out of the property. His enormous sculpture is missing.(16)


While all this is going on, something else has been happening on a performative level in town; another donative gesture, employing the act and the art of giving. Jocelyn Robert is going from shop to shop, distributing his CDs. He’s not going only to music stores though. He’s depositing his recordings to be found by unsuspecting shoppers on the shelves of a drugstore, the Dollar Value and the hardware store. He has 400 CDs to distribute. In Canadian Tire he stocked the shelves right next to a stockboy who took no notice. Éric, assisting him, opened up the boxes of vacuum cleaners and put a CD in each one.

Take home a new Hoover and get a complimentary recording of…..what? What will I make of this, my new vacuum unboxed, attachments idle as I sit in front of my stereo with a ‘whathe… Qwerty…fuckisthis’

The CD is one of a series the content of which is a multitrack accumulation, layering and building into a wash of exponential density.

Jocelyn Robert confesses that he is “preoccupied with the notion of imprecision as quality, fascinated by blurry pianos, hollow nerves, packaged gods, and the ambiguity between work and context, music and noise, object and site.”(17)

Although Jocelyn sees his gifts as “romantic strategies of despair” and not a provisional new economy he also sites his “refusal of public entertainment / gathering rules” which calls up the “potential for contrariety.” By enabling a private moment of exchange/experience, reaction or riposte, Jocelyn’s practice falls upon the littoral — the shoreline between the sea of individuals and the land of the social… The scarf is better than the bullet.(18)

Look how we can, or sad or merrily, Interpretation will misquote our looks…

— Shakespeare (Henry IV, Act.5, ii)

In conversation with the Paul and Éric, we learned that the title “Pas de traduction” came from the desire and then the inability, to find a word that had exactly the same meaning in English and French. (I am not convinced that the inability to find a common language-concept doesn’t have more to do with the contrarian proclivities of Messers Létourneau et Couillard.) I am also unsure which words were considered – we segued directly into a discussion of le mot, ‘performance’ and a discussion of translation vs. interpretation. However, it doesn’t matter, the starting point is always arbitrary — the theme and its sense, the meaning-making will out itself in the process, in the déroulement. Nevertheless we began with the notion of translation …

“He was one of that kind, it is easy to think, who to those he loved might give all he had, at once, without thought of gain.”
“Yes,” she said. “Yes he was. He was one of that kind.”
“Sometimes to give away is the only way to keep.”
“Yes, it is.”
“So then it was he who was truly the translator,” said Gavriil.

— John Crowley, The Translator(19)

(1) Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary © 1996, 1998 MICRA, Inc.
(2) Interview with Salman Rushdie, Christopher Hitchens, Progressive, v.61,n10 (Oct 1997): pp. 34-37.
(3) Fado press release, July 2003.
(4) Ibid.
(5) Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary
(6) Canadian actor Al Waxman played the “King of Kensington” in the eponymous 1970s TV series He died in January 2001.
(7) The Canadian National Exhibition, known for its midway games.
(8) Pas de traduction programme notes, Fado Performance Inc.
(9)The final qualifying heats for the Toronto Molson Indy, part of the Champ Car racing series, were taking place approximately two kilometres away.
(10) Barber, Bruce. “The Gift in Littoral Art Practice” [in Symposium 2000: Aspects of Post-Object and Performance Art …(Christchurch, NZ: Robert MacDougall Art Gallery, 2000] accessed at http://www.novelsquat.com/gift.htm September 2003.
(11) Accessed at http://www.exitfestival.org/index.html [server no longer online].
(12) Fado press release, July 2003.
(13) http://www.m-w.com/cgi-bin/dictionary (entry abridged by author).
(14)The Talking Creature is a series created by O’Donnell in which a group of people comes together and then goes out to solicit strangers to come back to the group for a free form conversation. Since he had planned to do Talking Creature on the same day as the Pas de Traduction performances it became an adjunct event.
(15) Fado press release, July 2003.
(16) Conversation with authour, July 2003.
(17) http://www.electrocd.com/bio.e/robert_jo.html
(18) Jocelyn Robert, email to author, July 16 2003.
(19) John Crowley, The Translator, William Morrow, New York, 2002.

Regarding Affect: Wind Doesn’t Blow Branches by Mimi Nakajima

It is November 1, 2002, and a small crowd has gathered in Toronto to experience “Wind Doesn’t Blow Branches”, a performance by visiting Japanese artist Mimi Nakajima. The show is scheduled to start promptly at 8 pm, but things appear to be running behind. It is already 8:20, and there is no sign of activity. The organizers seem unconcerned, but the crowd is bored, and becoming restless. This restlessness points to a mounting sense of affect, what Brian Massumi has described as “a prepersonal intensity corresponding to the passage from one experiential state of the body to another and implying an augmentation or diminution in that body’s capacity to act” (Massumi, Plateaus xvi as quoted in Shouse, para. 1). Eric Shouse writes that an affect is “a moment of unformed and unstructured potential” (Shouse, para. 5). For the waiting crowd, the absence of visible activity, combined with an unfulfilled sense of anticipation, manifests as an edgy mood whose outcome is uncertain. Will people lose interest and leave, taking with them a feeling of disappointment? Will the intensity rise to an explosive level as the crowd’s expectations remain unsatisfied? With no performer to command their attention, the assembled individuals take their cues from each other, feeding their collective disquiet.

Suddenly there is clattering at the stairs. Mimi Nakajima bursts into the room, camera in hand, breathing hard–seemingly “in a state” over her late arrival. This admittedly imprecise turn of phrase is purposeful, suggesting a sense of excitation—i.e., an intensity—without precisely naming that “state” as any one particular mood. As Massumi has theorized, “emotion and affect—if affect is intensity—follow different logics and pertain to different orders. … Emotion is qualified intensity, the conventional, consensual point of insertion of intensity into semantically and semiotically formed progressions” (Massumi, pp. 27-28). Massumi’s interest lies in the gap between the emotional responses that one might expect the content of an event to produce, and autonomic reactions that appear as a kind of unaccountable remainder (Massumi, pp. 24-25), “an emotional state … [of] static—temporal and narrative noise” (Massumi, p. 26).

In this case, Nakajima’s body offers contradictory physical cues, amplifying the static. She is breathing heavily, obviously in a state of physical exertion. At the same time, her facial expression is neutral. Her posture also offers contradictory signals: her torso is upright and supported, suggesting an alert openness, but her head is bowed and turned away from the audience, suggesting a sense of shame, or perhaps distraction. Shouse has noted that “facial expressions, respiration, tone of voice, and posture … can transmit affect” (Shouse, para. 13), claiming that “[w]hen your body infolds a context and another body … is expressing intensity in that context, one intensity is infolded into another” (Shouse, para. 14). Nakajima’s arrival brings her body, with its confusing physical intensities, in contact with the crowd’s restless, waiting bodies, generating a charged situation.

Nakajima repeatedly sets up events that engage her audience’s senses on the level of affect, operating outside of narrative logic and representational signification. Here, for example, she transmits affect not through communicative, actorly techniques of performing emotion, but by inserting her body, in a state of autonomic intensity, into a context of containment, uncertainty, and anticipation. Her work employs ruptures and provokes intensities that defy easy categorization, using affect to transmit what cannot be expressed through language. Nakajima’s performance can be read in a similar way to how Amy Herzog proposes approaching film analysis. Following Herzog’s Deleuze-inspired theoretical framework, I am interested in looking at how, in Nakajima’s performance, “movement and time penetrate and resonate throughout the [event] as a whole, functioning not as signifiers, but as the progenitors of thought” (Herzog, p. 83).

Herzog describes Deleuze’s concept of the time-image (as distinct from the linear causality of the movement-image), where “[t]he emphasis shifts from the logical progression of images to the experience of the image-in-itself. What we find here are pure optical and sound situations…, unfettered by narrative progression, and empty, disconnected any-space-whatevers” (Herzog, p. 84). In filmic terms, the time-image is approached through “moments of rupture, hesitation, irrational cutting, or prolonged duration” (Herzog, p. 84). Nakajima’s performance employs analogous techniques, constructing what might be termed time-experiences: situations that not only engage the optical and auditory senses, but also offer “pure”(1) tactile, olfactory, kinesthetic, and even temporal sensations. As Massumi has noted, “affect is synesthetic, implying a participation of the senses in each other: the measure of a living thing’s potential interactions is its ability to transform the effects of one sensory mode into those of another. (Tactility and vision being the most obvious but by no means the only examples; interoceptive senses, especially proprioception, are crucial.)” (Massumi, p. 35)

Nakajima’s rush into the room interrupts the waiting crowd. Without a moment’s pause for her to settle, her performance is announced. The milling crowd galvanizes into an attentive audience – bodies stilled, voices silent, eyes fixed on Mimi.(2) Her breathing is laboured as she turns away to fiddle with cables. We wait as she connects her camera to a video monitor and cues a tape. The aimless restlessness of the crowd has shifted to audience discomfort. Has there been an organizational mis-step, not allowing the performer time to prepare? The intensity of the audience’s gaze infolds with the conflicting intensity of the artist’s seeming confusion. “Nothing” has happened yet, but already the situation has taken us on an emotional roller coaster ride.

Finally, the tape begins to play. Mimi walks away from the monitor and begins her performance in another part of the room, splitting the audience’s focus. Those watching the monitor soon discover that its narrative information is virtually unintelligible – a blur of dark with occasional flashes of coloured light, accompanied by harsh, rapid, staccato clicks (footfalls of someone in heels?) and increasingly loud and rapid breathing. Abstract and rhythmic, with a constant blur of motion, the tape is non-representational (Dyer, p. 18). It functions affectively, creating a technological background hum(3) that is all the more disconcerting for its seeming lack of connection to the actions of the performer.

Mimi is explaining a complicated story in broken English. Her speech is halting. She is still wearing the wool coat she had on when she arrived. As she talks, she traces onto the coat(4) her route from her home in Tokyo to the space of the performance in Toronto, eventually cutting the coat off of her body and placing it on the floor, flattening three-dimensional space into two-dimensional representation. Just as the audience is beginning to acclimatize to her hesitant speech patterns, however, the performance veers off in a different direction. Without explanation, Mimi retrieves a black gym bag from a table and places it over her head.(5) She sits in a desk chair with wheels and begins spinning herself around in it, disorienting her body’s sense of balance and spatial perception to match the audience’s narrative dislocation.

After repeated turns, Mimi gets up and begins to walk in the space. With the bag over her head, she cannot see. The spinning has left her dizzy and not knowing which way she is facing. As she walks uncertainly through the space, her odd movements trigger a slight feeling of seasickness in some audience members.(6) Mimi walks into the audience, brushing up against bodies and almost tripping over someone sitting on the floor. The audience’s sense of touch is activated, and there is also a realization that the audience must take care, to some extent, of both their own bodies and that of Mimi. This suggests the beginnings of what Herzog calls “a fluid play of intensities, sensations and thought that disintegrates the distinction between ‘subject’ and ‘object'” (Herzog, p. 83).

Nakajima repeatedly uses the wall where most of the audience is clustered as if it were the floor. At one point, she places her body horizontally on the floor and slaps the bottoms of her shoes on the wall, as if she were “running” up the wall. Later, she holds the desk chair above her shoulder and rolls it along the wall. In an odd, non sequitur way, Nakajima is defying gravity. This physical action offers more than a metaphorical representation of being “on the other side of the world,” however. Its orientation has a disorienting effect on the audience’s sense of space. And its intrusion into the audience area forces the observers to make conscious choices about where to place themselves. Should they move to accommodate Mimi’s movement? Should they stay still and become obstacles to Mimi’s trajectory, which may place them in direct physical contact with the performer? Should they stay close enough to smell her sweat-soaked body as she continues to labour?

Repetition and duration are key elements of Nakajima’s performance. Herzog suggests that “potential affective force … lies in [the] ability to key into durations that would defy the limitations of the intellect, working not toward action, but toward the zone of indeterminacy which lies between perception and action” (Herzog, p. 85). For the audience, the length of each of Mimi’s actions seems indeterminate. Gestures repeat for indefinite durations, beginning and ending in an abrupt manner, not anchored by narrative links or plot (the logic of beginning, middle, and end). Like Herzog’s (or Deleuze’s) time-images, Nakajima’s time-experiences exist “not as a chronology, but as a series of juxtaposed ‘presents'” (Herzog, p. 84).

This zone of indeterminacy, where potential—or perhaps many simultaneous potentials—remain unformed and unstructured, has also been theorized as being virtual. Simon O’Sullivan argues that “affect is immanent to experience” (O’Sullivan, p. 126; emphasis O’Sullivan’s), and that “[a]rt opens us up to the non-human universe that we are part of…. [I]t transforms, if only for a moment, our sense of our ‘selves’ and our notion of our world” (O’Sullivan, p. 128). He turns to Deleuze’s categories of the actual and the virtual to bolster his position: “The possible is opposed to the real; the process undergone by the possible is therefore a ‘realisation.’ By contrast, the virtual is not opposed to the real; it possesses a full reality by itself. The process it undergoes is actualisation” (Deleuze, Difference and Reception, p. 112 as quoted in O’Sullivan, p. 129).

This idea, that the virtual possesses a full reality whether or not it has been actualized, strikes me as being central to an understanding of why or how I find Nakajima’s performance to be so moving. For, I must confess, what interests me most about “Wind Doesn’t Blow Branches” is not the mechanics of its construction, but the fact that it persists in my body as one of the most moving performances I have ever experienced, with the power to bring tears to my eyes and produce a lump in my throat several years later. This affective charge is not transmitted through the video documentation of the work. It cannot be located exclusively in the content of the work, which could be described as the profound challenge of communicating across gaps of language, distance, and perception. Neither is it fully explained by the intensities, ruptures, hesitancies, or durations I have pointed to here.

What moves me most about the performance happens in the final moment, when affect, percept, and concept collide.(7) Mimi has been rolling the chair high on the wall for several minutes, her pace seemingly slow motion, accomplishing a duration that, for this particular action, seems beyond fathomable. Time feels suspended in the present. Then the video catches my eye or my ear. They are inextricably linked in my memory, so it is impossible to say with any precision. The staccato click of heels on pavement and the heavy breath of running eases up. The coloured lights slow their movement and coalesce into a coherent image; it is the performance space, shot from the street. Then, on the video, we climb the stairs, enter the space, and see ourselves. We hear Mimi being introduced. And suddenly we understand: the performance did begin on time, as Mimi left the place she was staying in Toronto and began running in high heels at top speed across town, toward the performance space. Through the real-time video recording, the time we have spent with her has also had, inscribed within it, the time and space of her running. Multiple virtual realities—the ones we have lived watching her performance, infolding the context of our bodies, the space, the time, our relationships to Mimi as we have been intuiting them—are suddenly overwritten with a completely unexpected new context that we have already experienced but are only now recognizing. In this moment of excess; this eruption of intensity, sensation and thought; this series of juxtaposed presents, Mimi drops the chair. It falls swiftly and sharply to the floor, like the proverbial cane of the Zen master rapping the acolyte’s shoulder. Gravity returns, the same as ever, but somehow not.


(1) I interpret the word “pure” as used by Herzog to mean something similar to the phrase “non-representational signs” as used by Richard Dyer, who discusses how entertainment works at the level of sensibility by employing various qualities of such non-representational signs as “colour, texture, movement, rhythm, melody, [and] camerawork” (Dyer, p. 18). 

(2) This is what my body remembers, but watching the video documentation of the event, I discover an alternate reality. Yes, the bodies in the space do shift to focus on Mimi, and most gravitate to the edges of the room, but with no fixed lights or placed chairs, and with Mimi’s attention focused on the equipment, some audience members appear suspended, distracted by contradictory impulses. Their uncertainty about where to be an audience translates into an uncertainty about how to be an audience. They find themselves (temporarily) in a “disconnected any-space-whatever”.

(3) Shouse writes that affect is what determines “the background intensity of our everyday lives (the half-sensed, ongoing hum of quantity/quality that we experience when we are not really attuned to any experience at all” (Shouse, para. 6). Nakajima’s videotape inserts itself into the audience’s sensorial periphery, amplifying intensity through its assertion of movement, colour, and rhythm.

(4) Using plastic hooks with stick-on backing to mark each stop along the route, and tying a string from hook to hook. When the string proves too short, she borrows a shoelace from an audience member.

(5) This signals a radical shift of formal styles, from a conservatively dressed young woman earnestly attempting to tell a story, to a surrealist image of a woman with a gym bag for a head. I am reminded of Deleuze’s search for alternate forms of individuation. “What we’re interested in, you see, are modes of individuation beyond those of things, persons or subjects; the individuation, say, of a time of day, of a region, a climate, a river or a wind, of an event” (Deleuze, Gilles, Negotiations 1972-1990 as quoted in O’Sullivan, p. 128).

(6) All subjective descriptions reflect the author’s recollection of the performance, and his discussions with other audience members later.

(7) Once again Deleuze points the way. “Style in philosophy strains toward three different poles: concepts, or new ways of thinking; percepts, or new ways of seeing and hearing; and affects, or new ways of feeling. They’re the philosophical trinity, philosophy as opera: you need all three to get things moving” (Deleuze,Negotiations 1972-1990 as quoted in Herzog, p 86; emphasis in original).


Richard Dyer, “Entertainment and Utopia,” Only Entertainment, London & New York: Routledge, 1992. pp. 18-44.

Amy Herzog, “Affectivity, Becoming, and the Cinematic Event: Gilles Deleuze and the Futures of Feminist Film Theory,” Affective Encounters: Rethinking Embodiment in Feminist Media Studies, University of Turku, School of Art, Literature and Music Media Studies, Series A, No. 49
http://www.hum.utu.fi/mediatutkimus/affective/herzog.pdf pp. 83-88.

Brian Massumi, “The Autonomy of Affect,” Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation, Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2002. pp. 23-45.

Simon O’Sullivan, “An Aesthetics of Affect: Thinking Art Beyond Representation,” Angelaki, Volume 6, No. 3, December 2001. pp. 125-125.

Eric Shouse, “Feeling, Emotion, Affect,” M/C Journal 8.6 (2005).

Meridian Performance Description

In May 2001, I celebrated my 50th birthday, and if I live to be 100, it could be considered my meridian year.

I performed this durational piece on June 21st, 2001. It was the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, and on Ward’s Island Beach in Toronto, Canada, that day started at 5:36 AM and ended at 9:02 PM, a total of 15 hours and 26 minutes. During that time, I answered questions concerning 100 years, moving from the past into the future, from 1951 to 2050, ranging from personal to global concerns.

Starting at the east end of the beach at sunrise, I moved progressively down the beach 100 times, or, 12 feet every 9 minutes, until I ended at the west end of the beach at sunset. I carried 100 smooth lake stones, a pen, a timer, a trowel, and a ball wound of gray ribbons. The questions were written on the ribbons, and so every 9 minutes I unfurled the next year’s questions and read them aloud.

More than one hundred questions were emailed to me in advance by friends, family and strangers, from Argentina, Canada, Chile, Croatia, England, Germany, Korea, Macedonia, Portugal, Taiwan, and the United States.

The audience on the beach assisted me in answering the questions, and lively and intimate discussions ensued, often between strangers. The audience, which ebbed and flowed throughout the day, was made up of people who knew of the event and others who happened upon it while walking on the beach.

When we finished answering the question, I tied the ribbon to the back of the chair. I then wrote a private message on one of the lake stones that I was carrying, and buried it in the sand at my feet. I trust that the 100 stones will eventually rise to the surface and be found.

Those who could not attend were asked to be there in spirit, and to pay attention to what they heard at the precise time that the question was answered on the beach. Did they hear the answer? They told me of their experiences in later correspondences.

TIME TIME TIME Interview with Alastair MacLennan

FADO (Paul Couillard): You’ve done a lot of durational performances. What interests you about duration?

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: I’m interested in the physicality of time. Time is what we all live in and through, so I use time as a medium. In a usual day people (maybe) work for a bit, sleep for a bit, eat for a bit, have some recreation–but if one breaks that pattern and does some kind of ritual work or engages in art activity that takes up the whole of that time–day and night–then different kinds of experiences open up for the individual making the work.

FADO: You’re talking about yourself as a performer?


FADO: One aspect of durational performance is that audiences rarely see the full work. Most people only see a small portion of the overall piece–whether they’re the two-minute tourist or someone who’s very engaged in a piece who stays for an hour or comes several times. What do you hope an audience member takes away from that fragment of the whole?

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: Obviously if one’s doing an extended piece of work, say for 24 hours, one would expect members of the audience to be there for only a few minutes, or to come and go. They’ll take a slice of the whole of that activity. One hopes that from the slice they will get some implication of the whole work. When we meet somebody on the street, even though that person is 25 or 42 years old or young, we’re seeing only a slice of his or her life, and yet the whole of it is there.

FADO: Do you always do long works?

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: No, not necessarily. I’ve been attracted to those, but I also do shorter ones, almost like lecture/seminar-performances, half an hour to an hour, or very short performances, just a few minutes long–work that might seem to be the opposite of the long works, although it’s the long works that people would associate me with.

FADO: You’ve done things as long as 144 hours. Is that your longest work?

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: Yes, in terms of a live performative event, where day and night there was a concentrated focus on my carrying out a series of ritual actions, non-stop, throughout. That would be the longest, six days and nights. I stopped because I had to be at (another kind of) work starting the next day.

FADO: Do you find it gets harder as you get older?

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: Yes and no, but when doing a long piece of several days and nights without eating or sleeping, the hardest point is partway through, during the second or third night. It’s very difficult psychologically to keep going. The body calls out for sleep, rest, sustenance–but if one can push through that, work past this point, work through the discomfort, giving oneself totally to it, it gets easier.

FADO: When we were talking the other day about this kind of work, you asked me if I had ever had a moment during a piece where I thought “why am I doing this?” Has that happened to you?

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: Yes, that’s the small ‘self’ rebelling against the effort. In the longest ones, I have these queries come up, and it’s a question of just living with them, seeing through them and seeing them through.

FADO: Does that usually happen when there is nobody else around, or when there is an audience there?

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: It could happen in both situations. I remember when I was carrying an awkward weight around my neck. It wasn’t heavy, but it caused nausea, and it was very difficult continuing the work feeling this condition. One can get past this by ‘losing’ oneself in the work.

FADO: When you do a series of actions, is it planned out what you’re going to do? Couldn’t you have switched to carrying the weight in a different way, or did you have a particular visual in mind?

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: To answer the question in a more general sense, usually there is a skeletal structure, but within that, there is flexibility for development or change. There is always the possibility that something can happen that one has had absolutely no foresight about. Even though one is prepared, to a certain extent, for how things might go, it is possible for some completely unforeseen event to change or challenge the whole nature of the work. One should be prepared to drop the plan if appropriate, and just deal with the actuality of what is there in real time and space.

FADO: Do you ever find yourself in a situation where you decide your plan isn’t working and you must try something else?

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: I recall a situation working with the group Black Market International. I was late in arriving, and had no time to prepare. I had my bags with me but the group had already started. I had time to get there (with the bags), and that was the piece. The work became just being there, somewhere between observer and performer, in transmigration.

FADO: In your longer pieces, other than having some tea or water, you frequently don’t eat or sleep. Is there a reason for that? Have you thought of structuring a performance to allow pee breaks or time to eat or sleep?

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: There have been some in which I have eaten and slept, but it’s a decision one makes beforehand–will I do this one without eating or sleeping, or will I do this one with breaks every five minutes? etc. It’s an integral part of the planning.

FADO: You seem to like that idea of not eating and not sleeping. Is that about focus?

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: Partly focus, partly attention. Also, without eating one might not have so many breaks.

FADO: So you can stay in the piece?

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: Yes. Works don’t have to be this way, but for me it’s an integral element, to become totally absorbed by the situation one is in and make that be the food and drink, if you will.

FADO: Is being focused your goal as a performer?

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: Yes. I don’t want to be distracted. That wouldn’t be sufficiently challenging or fulfilling to me.

FADO: In EMIT TIME ITEM, I noticed you often seemed to have your eyes closed.

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: Not totally closed. It probably looked that way; I might have bumped into things otherwise. (Laughs.)

FADO: Actually, somebody who was watching said, “Oh, he has his eyes closed but he’s walking perfectly next to that table without varying; it’s amazing.”

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: They’re nearly closed but not really, they’re barely open. It helps focus.

FADO: The image you were creating in EMIT TIME ITEM encompassed the entire room. A long table cut the room diagonally from one corner to the other, so audience members had to confront this physical reality, and come very close to the table, as soon as they entered the space. The audience couldn’t be completely outside of the image, in a way. Was that distracting for you?

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: Not at all. The presence of the audience is built into a sense of a range of possibilities and probabilities of how the image of the table and the inclusive performative presence of audience and artist work together.

FADO: I’m wondering about how the audience is affected by being surrounded by the work. In theatre, one usually has a stage, and most visual art is placed in a way that distances the observer. Last fall, 7a*11d [International Performance Art Festival] presented a series of curatorial talks [SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED, 1998], and I was struck by something that came up in a presentation by Slavka Sverakova. She was describing the work of younger artists coming out of Ireland, and one of the directions in which their work seemed to be moving was to make the audience’s role more participatory. For example, she showed the work of an artist who did tableaux, where a picture was taken of him in a particular setting, and then he would ask different audience members to do the same pose in the same setting and have the picture taken–so that the audience experienced the exact same physical situation as the performer. I think there is a trend in performance to increase the audience’s experiential relationship to the work. In terms of your own work, how do you see the audience’s role?

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: I feel that audience members are spectators too, who can absorb the presence and atmosphere generated in the space. I trust they’ll absorb these without necessarily being (artificially) pulled into the work. I don’t want to force individuals into behaving in pre-coded ways. I would like them, in their own time and way(s), to intuit and absorb what is taking place, and to be there for as short or long a time as they feel they wish or need to be.

FADO: You mentioned the physicality of time as being an important element. What do you think time brings to a piece?

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: Our culture is not very good at being with time. There is a tendency to ‘kill’ time, or not to be aware of time–a sense that it’s oppressive. We are also fearful of time passing, of the aging process. Of import is attending to what we’re going through rather than hiding from it, escaping from it or seeking diversion from it.

FADO: One of the things you told me about EMIT TIME ITEM was that you wanted to mark time.

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: This work was specifically trying to mark 30 years of “the Troubles”, as they’re called in Northern Ireland. Having said that, the real subject of the work was time, using one hour to stand for one year: so, 30 hours for 30 years.

FADO: The work struck me as being very tight in terms of its formal structure. For example, you were marking 30 years, so you set 30 place settings at a table over 30 hours. One could read very specific meanings into all of the items you used, whether it was the tags like toe tags that you attached to the hat on the table and to your coat, or the contrast of the pigs’ ears and the fish, or the specificity of the place setting of a cup [earth] with water, a candle [fire], and the balloon [air or breath]. I could see a layering of visual metaphors, which is a kind of work that has a long history in terms of visual art or iconography, but perhaps isn’t as common in terms of what one sees on one’s TV set. Do you have specific meanings for each element that you bring into a piece?

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: There are a range of different meaning associations that I use with all the elements. It’s not as though the fish or pig ears mean only one thing each. If people could put single definitive meanings on each of the images, and the imagery couldn’t function more evocatively in terms of possible plural inter-associations, I would find that too limiting. I prefer situations where the images can inter-effect or inter-effuse and there are a range of sliding, inter-penetrative and associative linkages between the elements.

FADO: Some of the elements you used in EMIT TIME ITEM are things that you use over and over again. For example, you’ve used fish and pigs’ ears in many pieces. Do those things have very personal meanings as well as whatever collective unconscious or more universal readings might be made?

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: Yes, they do. I also have a sympathy with pigs and fish, though I eat fish. Fish are considered a Christian symbol: that’s one ideal of the fish. I like using real fish, with the gap between the symbol and the real thing. With an actual fish, because it’s dead, an odour develops. The smell and aspects of temporality are all physically there. I’m interested in the time aspect that is manifested, the stages the body goes through in transitioning its state.

FADO: The pigs’ ears completely changed colour over the 30 hours. They dried out and became quite red; one could see scars developing. You said you have a sympathy with animals. Does it disturb you at all that you’re using dead creatures in your performance?

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: Yes, it does. Certain aspects of the work are also negative or questioning. One wants an arrow pointing both ways simultaneously–positives, negatives and questionables–to be included and be implicit there.

FADO: Every piece has to have tension to have meaning.

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: Also, the tendency in our culture of disinclination to listen to self and to others. Pigs are very intelligent creatures, much abused.

FADO: Their flesh is also considered to be one of the closest to human.

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: Indeed. Then there’s the use of ‘pig’ in western phraseology as a disparaging term.

FADO: Somebody who saw the piece asked me, “Those pigs’ ears–is he trying to say the people who do this are pigs?” That was her first interpretation of seeing that element used in the work. She was one of the students [from an art class at York University] who came. They were all asking questions, wanting to know the exact meaning of each element.

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: That’s part of our consciousness, the way we’ve been educated to analyze and take apart a whole situation and then try to reconstruct the whole through understanding the parts. While this methodology has certain benefits, it also has real drawbacks.

FADO: Finding those kinds of meanings can stay very much on the surface.

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: Yes, and one hopes for more than the sum of the parts–more than basic Gestalt thinking. There’s also a patterning in the work, a visual rhythm that generates its own meaning associations, which include, but to a certain extent have autonomy from, elements used in the patterning.

FADO: You structured EMIT TIME ITEM so that there was a repetitive element to it. You were creating a cumulative effect, so that each place setting looked the same, for example. Or your actions–you had more than one action but they were also repeated, so that in the third hour you might do something and then in the sixth hour you might do it again. Do you find there is a particular meaning or satisfaction that comes from repetition of action?

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: There can be, although for me it’s not so much the actual repetition of the thing as the way in which repetition is done. I mean ‘way’ not as a noun but as a verb–the nature of the doing and the nature of the being. The state one is in as one is doing the activity, whether it be a repeated action or not, is most important.

FADO: If you were doing a repetitive action, would you try to maintain one feeling, or is it important that the feeling change?

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: The feeling can change, but an equivalent relation produces the feeling each time.

FADO: Do you mean the performer’s commitment level?

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: There’s that–commitment to what’s happening as it’s happening, in the now moment. But also, to give an example from the work: I used clocks at each place setting I was laying by hand–not digital clocks, but ones with hands going around in a circle. They were placed on the table, which the public and I were going round, and the place settings were going round it. Layered circling took place.

FADO: Cycles.

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: In a way, the 30 hours of the performance is 24 plus 6, making 30 to match 30 (years).

FADO: When you say “24 plus”, you mean one cycle, ‘plus’?

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: Cycle within/outwith a cycle.

FADO: It continues. The ‘plus’ suggests that it doesn’t stop there, even though a performer has to decide on a beginning and an end because that’s the nature of the beast.

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: A work can last until one is no longer a living, physical human being. I have a piece operating which started in the early ’80s and will physically finish as I die. That is an ongoing work.

FADO: Is that work publicly announced in any way, or is it a private piece?

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: It’s a private piece, but it’s also public.

FADO: I guess it’s public now because you are talking about it on tape!

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: It’s essentially invisible. If I reveal particulars concerning it, it becomes physically clear. I wear black until I die.

FADO: Linda Montano, who was the first artist in the series, has done a lot of work in seven-year cycles–for example, with the chakras–but she has also declared her entire life to be an art piece. So in a sense, every moment of her life is a performance. She told me the reason she did that was because, for her, the important thing about performance is focus or attention. Declaring her whole life to be an artwork gives it a certain intent or focus or attention, to boost it to a different level. So I said to her, “If that’s the case, Linda, you could have come to Toronto and been here for whatever length of time and said, ‘That’s my performance; I lived it.'” But in fact she created a very specific event with costuming and various elements. I asked her why, and she said, for her the event is like the birthday party. Our life is a whole bunch of things, but we still have these particular moments of celebration.

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: Yes, I understand that. One of the dangers is that words are easy. During the ’70s, the period of conceptual art, on the one hand it was very freeing for many artists, but on the other hand, language lets us off the hook of real commitment, which involves body, mind and spirit as well as words. I see doing live works as celebratory, but also as providing the opportunity to become grounded again in making art as a basis for locating meaning in one’s life. It’s not just a little extra on top; it’s taking everything back to the roots of one’s experience as a human being and examining that again.

FADO: Do you have a stock answer for the question of the purpose of art, or the meaning of art, or why you do art?

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: People often talk about the impossibility of definitions of art, and one’s heard that the real value of art is in its not having a value, or the worth of purposelessness. Living in Belfast, one of the things that keeps me here is questioning the purpose of art in a context like this. Here where there’s been a lot of killing since the late ’60s and it’s been hard for some people, and particular families and communities, I ask(ed) myself the question: Is art icing on the cake, not necessary in the first place, or is it actually something much more substantial and deeply needed in our lives? Belfast was a good place to come to terms with questions like that. It still is. For me, art is the demonstrated wish and will to resolve conflict through action. That pertains to working in any medium whatsoever and incorporates the worlds of politics, religion and culture–in any combination, private and/or public.

FADO: As an artist, what is it that attracted you most to performance as a medium?

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: The focus on creating relationships in actual time–and, if anything, defocusing from undue attention to the so-called ‘finished’ art object. In performance, real emphasis is on the creativity of being and doing and the inter-relationships involved, in such a way that the work cannot so readily be ‘cut off’ and used as cultural real estate. With particular kinds of artwork, we’ve given undue significance to the ‘object’ rather than to the creativity that goes into the making of the work.

FADO: Commodification.

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: Commodification of the principles of creativity. There’s a massive discrepancy in understanding. We’re actually clutching at shells and skins and husks of creativity in valuing only the finished object. Very often, the heart of it–the life in it–is gone, so I deliberately place attention on the actual making, focusing on the physicality of time. There’s a superficial and crass understanding of how to value creativity in what is loosely termed ‘the visual arts’ in our culture.

FADO: You’ve used the word ‘ritual’, which is traditionally associated with religion. Do you think there is a spiritual aspect to art?

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: Yes, I do. In language, the meaning of words alters over time–and spirit is one of those. Spirit is important. Without it, I wouldn’t be making work. I won’t define what that word means; if anything, I’m defined by it.

FADO: The question comes up for me when we’re talking specifically about durational work, because when I look back and try to find examples of cultural events involving somebody doing something for an extended period of time, one of the few places I find that form is in religious rituals.

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: I’m stating (amongst other things) disappointment with the world of fine art as we know it in terms of its offering any fully satisfactory answers to the questions of what it means to be alive in the world. I also find religion problematic, with its dogmas and frozen hierarchies, though certain processes within differing belief systems could be useful if freed from such.

FADO: Do you ever think of your work as having a message? In talking about something like “the Troubles”, you’re tackling a politically charged issue. But you’re not saying “this side’s right; that side’s wrong.” I don’t think that’s the intention of your work at all.

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: First and foremost, one wants to move people, if possible, by the work. It’s not an either/or situation. It’s both/and.

FADO: An artist like Rachel Rosenthal, for example, has very specific messages that she’s trying to get out through her work. It’s a call to arms, in a sense. Your work seems to be more about approaching the tension, maybe giving a picture of the tension but not identifying “this is what’s wrong,” per se.

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: What’s important is to try to fuse with what’s going on as it takes place, not being cut off from any situation. Being alive now, we share responsibility for the time we have together, individually and collectively. It’s not a call to arms. I don’t think you can actually ‘force’ people to change their minds. You can ‘lean’ on people to change their lives from the outside in, but it’s only the individual him or herself who can change his or her life from the inside out. I’m more interested in that; it’s a much more fundamental concern for evolution of human consciousness. I prefer not to force people, but to allow them the opportunity to be in a situation, with a situation. One hopes that if the work is even partially successful, they’ll be able to reflect a little while there. There are a range of things one might wish people to reflect on, but I don’t want to pre-fix how and what people should feel and think. I don’t want to force people into believing this or that. They should feel free in relation to that which is there to be considered. Having said that, one does want a core of meaning to be emitted from the work for an audience. That would be part of the aspiration I would have for the work as an artist. Living in Belfast, where many people have very specific religious and political views, one realizes how limited by dogma many such stances are. Most are of the ‘either/or’ variety. One doesn’t want to make ‘either/or’ art; one wants to make ‘both/and’ art.

FADO: Not just replace one set of dogma with another–

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: Or have everyone believing he or she’s got the only ‘truth’ and knows what’s good for the public. I think the statement “physician, heal thyself” (before presuming to heal others) is appropriate.

FADO: My last question comes out of that statement. When you do a work, is there a personal agenda in terms of self-transformation or research? Do you set yourself a specific task? Do you do work in order to push yourself?

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: Yes. Each work I do has an aspiration. I want it to be the best work I make. There’s a self-generated caution against being complacent. One strives to make the work be as real within its limits as possible. There are aspects of personal change in that.

FADO: One sometimes hears it said of performance: “I’m just doing it for myself and the audience gets whatever they get out of it.”

ALASTAIR MACLENNAN: That can sound very blasé. On the other hand, unless one pleases one’s self, how can one hope to please an audience? The audience is looking ‘through’ the performer to get information, entertainment, pleasure, a sense of fulfillment, etc. It’s how one defines self in relation to other(s) that becomes crucial here. If there’s a fluid sense of self in relation to other, there isn’t selfishness. Who is the work for? How is one being used as a conductor through which forces flow to others? What kind of instrument is one allowing oneself to be? There are issues of responsibility here. These are questions one asks oneself in making actuations (performance/installations). One must give oneself completely to the work, and to ‘other.’

Eyewitness Account: EMIT TIME ITEM by Alastair MacLennan

(In an email to Jenny Strauss)

From: Francis Comrie [fcomrie@sprint.ca]
Sent: Monday, February 22, 1999 8:12 PM
To: Strauss, Jenny
Subject: Alastair’s Show

Well, Jenny, Alastair’s show was indeed in my [former] studio which gave it even more depth for me.

* Place had been painted white. It is a long room 20′ X 60′. Windows were covered with white parchment
* A row of 6 long tables covered with white tableclothes went from corner to corner. On this was strewn out what I believe were the pages of the Belfast telephone directory.
* Down the center of the table was a row of black toques ( which I believe the IRA use to cover their faces). between the toques were alternately a dead fish or a pig’s ear, all rotting.
* strewn over all this were strips of paper with names on them, thousands of them like straw.
* at the 2 corners of the room where the tables ended were a speaker. Over these speakers were broadcast names read alternately by a male & female voice.
* Alastair was tall & bald with a white beard. He was dressed in a long black coat and dark glasses. He began the presentation by placing a white dinner plate at 1 corner of table. He then inflated a black balloon and tied it through the handle of a white cup which he placed beside the plate. In the cup he poured water and then put a tea candle to float in it. he then lit the candle.
* He then folded 2 paper airplanes, one of plain white paper & one of what I believe to have been a map of Belfast on white paper. he placed the planes on the dinner plate side by side facing in opposite directions.
* He then wound an alarm clock, set it to ring in 1 hour, and placed it beside the place setting.
* For the next hour he walked slowly around table carrying a dead fish on a wire in one hand and portion of a rotted gourd in other hand. From his shoulder hung a string of toe tags.
* When the alarm went off in an hour he repeated the same procedure until after 29 hours all 30 places were set. He then sat in a corner immobile facing the wall for the final hour.
* I didn’t see how he set them but at the end of the 30th hour all the alarms went off. He then went around the table setting all the paper aiplanes ablaze. When all had burned leaving ashes on plates he quietly announced “It is finished”

There were never at any time more than a few people there when I was. For the finale there were about 10 of us including 2 or 3 I think were organizers. they were videotaping the event. It was very moving for me. My friend was brought to tears & claims it has changed her forever. I wanted to talk to Alastair but he left before I was ready. …


TIME TIME TIME presented works ranging from 12 hours to several days. Ritual, endurance, attention span, community-building, altering states of consciousness, boundaries between public and private, narrative, linearity and transformation were explored in the series by artists presenting their compelling, urgent visions of ourselves and our world at the end of the 20th Century.

Writing Blue

Writing Blue is the smell of interpretation. Composed of materials that many "know", blueberry candy offers a flicker of nostalgia. Grounded in blue cypress like a hunch that comes from speculation, it is the lavender that offers overwhelming explanations.

Top Notes

blueberry candy

Middle Notes

lavender, mens shaving cream

Base Notes

hyacinth, blue cypress