Paul Couillard

© Paul Couillard. Duorama #129 (performance with Ed Johnson), Museo de Arte ContemporĂĄneo de Oaxaca, 2020. Photo Fausto Luna.


Paul Couillard has been working as a queer artist, curator, and performance art scholar since 1985. He has created well over 300 performance works in 26 countries, often with his husband and collaborator, Ed Johnson. Paul was the Performance Art Curator for FADO from 1993 until 2007, and is a founding co-curator of 7a*11d. His main areas of interest include site-responsiveness, building community, and addressing trauma through explorations of our bodies as shared vessels of sensation, experience, knowledge and spirit. He is the editor of the monograph series Canadian Performance Art Legends, and has been a lecturer at McMaster University and the University of Toronto Scarborough. He recently completed a doctorate through the York Graduate Program in Communication and Culture. His dissertation Rethinking Presence with a Thinking Body: Intra-active Relationality and Animate Form offers a meditation on presence from the perspective of a thinking body, integrating insights from continental philosophy, popular neuroscience, and interactive performance art practices.

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 SantamarĂ­a, 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 thĂ©Ăątre Ă  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 SantamarĂ­a’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

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 Ă  risque. In Couillard, P. & Liva, A., Eds. Alain-Martin Richard: Performances, manƓuvres et autres hypothĂšses de disparition / Performances, manoeuvres and other hypotheses for disappearing. Toronto, ON/QuĂ©bec, QC: Fado Performance Inc., Sagamie Ă©dition 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.

Elvira SantamarĂ­a-Torres

© Elvira Santamaría-Torres, Salt Cartographies, 2018. 7a11d International Festival of Performance Art. Photo Henry Chan.

b. 1967, Mexico/ Ireland

Elvira SantamarĂ­a-Torres completed a Masters’s degree in Visual Arts at the University of Ulster in Belfast. Her work focuses on public actions, process art, installation and performance. She is currently based in both Northern Ireland and Mexico.

In 1994, SantamarĂ­a-Torres obtained the First award of the 3rd X-Teresa, The Month of Performance Art and in the same year was invited to participate in the Rencontre Internationale d’art performance de QuĂ©bec. Since then, she has presented her work in festivals, art centres, galleries, museums and public spaces in Mexico, Europe, North America, Asia and Latin America. Her most recent public projects include ParĂĄbolas de Desalojo y Procesos de RegeneraciĂłn, 2013-2016 (Mexico and various Latin American countries); Salt Cartographies in MACO (Oaxaca, Mexico, 2015), Sur Gallery (Toronto, 2018) and Golden Thread Gallery (Belfast, 2022).

In 2013, SantamarĂ­a-Torres was postulated to the Artraker, Awarding Creativity in Art and Conflict in London and was part of the juror for the 2014 award. She is a member of Black Market International, a performance art group. She has organised several events such as the annual International Performance Art Encounter in YucatĂĄn, 2002-2006; InterSER0 I |& II, International Action Art Encounter at the Carrillo Gil Art Museum, 2009, and Humanism in process: Female Performance Artist at Work 1 & 2, 2019.

Santamaría-Torres conducts workshops and conferences in art centres, universities and museums in Mexico and abroad. She is an actual Member of the National System of Art Creators FONCA–Secretaria de Cultura and Flax Art Studios in Belfast.

Everyday life words in progress by Elvira SantamarĂ­a Torres

FADO is proud to introduce Toronto audiences to the work of renowned Mexican artist Elvira SantamarĂ­a Torres, who creates a new piece in-situ, working with the concept of “everyday life words in progress.” This project is presented in the context of FADO’s on-going IDea series.

For this project, SantamarĂ­a Torres begins with the minimal idea of installing herself in a Toronto window front space and responding to the words found in two different Toronto newspapers each day. Engaged in a sensitive process of daily response SantamarĂ­a Torres created a progressive series of actions, images and objects that speak to immediate conditions. The performance could be viewed from the street, or one could enter the space and interact with her. Starting with an 18-hour day, the performance became progressively shorter each day until the final 2-hour action on the last day.

SantamarĂ­a Torres writes of her way of working: “I am interested in instant creation. I think that the need for real human communication demands freedom and spontaneity, far away from seeking determinate answers. Action artists are inventing new relationships among others and at the same time they are discovering and reinventing themselves.” (Source: New Moves International)

March 16 @ 6:00am–midnight
March 17 @ 6:00am–10:00pm
March 18 @ 6:00am–8:00pm
March 19 @ 6:00am–6:00pm
March 20 @ 7:00am–5:00pm
March 21 @ 9:00am–5:00pm
March 22 @ 11:00am–5:00pm
March 23 @ 1:00pm–5:00pm
March 24 @ 3:00pm–5:00pm

© Elvira Santamaría Torres, Everyday life words in progress, 2007. Photo Miklos Legrady.

Performance Yellow

This fragrance opens us to the question, has the show started? It's winter, the theatre is colder than the street and the room is filled with people and all their winter smells: wet faux leather, down, too much shampoo, and beer breath. The atmosphere is a trickster. Am I late, am I early?

Top Notes

yellow mandarin, mimosa

Middle Notes

honey, chamomile, salt

Base Notes

narcissus, guaiac wood, piss, beer