An Interview with Aleesa Cohene

Photo Alexander Coggin.

(Interview has been edited for clarity)

Jordan King: I was interested to find out that you’re from Vancouver originally. Do you consider Vancouver as having been a part of your formation as an artist?

Aleesa Cohene: I don’t think so. I mean, of course, I grew up there so for sure there are creative ties to my childhood and upbringing. I left when I was 18 and moved to Toronto. I did my undergraduate in philosophy and from there, went to film school and then trained in editorial. It was there that I started making more experimental work, still thinking that I would work for clients and in post-production houses, which I continue to do today, in different ways. When I was at school, I was doing assignments for school. When I first started making artwork, I worked with found footage exclusively, caring a lot about the history and politics of found footage practices, specifically in Canada. I was really interested in getting to know artists in the Toronto community, who were making this genre of work at the time. While in my last year of film school, my final project was collage based consisting of a collection of clips from media sources that contained gestures and body movements I saw connected to acts of activism. This was anything from a drama, where a main character is in a union, or a thriller with a demonstration scene. One clip I included was  from a science fiction film of two people falling from the Twin Towers. The film was made about a month  before 9/11, and the day my video first screened in the classroom was the day prior to  9/11. So as this image played, news was coming in about what was happening in New York city. No one had mobile phones at the time. People were coming back from lunch and had listened to the news in a car or restaurant. Following this experience I had really new questions about the work:  What is this image now and what was that image then? What did this image mean in its original context, and does it matter? The use and weight of the image had a resonance that allowed for a kind of deeper relationship to what I was making. 

Eventually I took the video to Vtape and it was programmed in many programs across the world, because of that one clip essentially. There was no real context for it yet, the context sort of became what people gave it over time. So I had this very quick and fortunate exposure  to film festivals and to conversations around filmmaking early on in my artistic practice, and am really grateful for that now. 

I made single channel work for about ten years, and then I moved to multi channel installation, which is how I work now. The methodology of editing is still at the core of my practice and from this I have moved to working with sculpture, scent and sometimes paintings and dance, all of which come from the narrative of the films that I’m building and making. Film is still very much at the core of the work. I think that tension around the responsibility of putting new images into the world, of working with images, and then putting them back into the world. Your question reminded me of that time. 

JK: Do you remember feeling creatively invigorated or inspired when you lived in Toronto?

AC: Sure, there were many moments. Especially around the depth of friendships that I have. I find I miss Toronto in many ways, I miss the communities.

JK: Being based in Toronto, I find folks imagine what else is going on elsewhere in the world, or people feel the need to get out or go to other places to make stuff happen.

AC: I also remember those conversations and wonder what about Toronto makes people both love it and hate it; never wanting to leave, always wanting to leave. That desire isn’t even part of so many people’s realities. I went to residencies in Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands and lived in Berlin for several years, but I always loved and missed Toronto in different ways. 

JK: The artist residencies piece is something that’s really important, I appreciate hearing that as well. A very dear friend of mine in New York, who’s a choreographer and a company director, goes to as many residencies as he can. I’m trying to allow residencies to fuel me as best I can while I’m finishing my program at OCAD and to take those chances to go and be in other places and meet creative people [in] other places, and get inspired that way. 

AC: It’s a great way to get to know a city and really no two residencies are the same. With each residency you have to navigate a lot of different conditions. Whereas moving to a new city, or country is a different commitment. I’ve been in Los Angeles for  eight years, and I’m still navigating the reality of not being American. Moving is both a value based and cultural adjustment. It took me about five years to feel set up, between healthcare and immigration, neither of which happen quickly. And neither are permanent, when you do achieve something, it still feels like a constant revolving door. This might be specific to America though. 

JK: There are all those logistical things we could get into, between the American O1 (artist) visa, all those processes. I am specifically really curious to talk about the art and olfaction part of your work. I was introduced to that by Shannon [Cochrane, director of FADO] through the most recent FADO scented postcards which were mailed out, which I was so blown away by.

AC: The PERFORMANCE YELLOW scent?

JK: Yeah. 

AC: Early on in my practice, I think beginning in 2006, I decided to start training myself in scent creation and fragrance composition. While making video work, it became really clear that there was a presence and immediacy that video couldn’t achieve; a felt experience of a narrative. I wanted to explode the senses and what we were experiencing in space, sensorially… The first work that included scent was Like, Like, which I made when I was in Cologne, during a fellowship. I emitted the scent from behind video monitors, so the heat of the monitor acted as a diffuser for the smell. I thought “Okay, this is very much like a body, or another presence.” With each exhibition, I’d make another batch. It was very homegrown. Every batch was a little bit different, which conceptually worked for the installation but the process started irritating me. I wasn’t enjoying remaking the scent each time, and I wanted to develop a formula that I could repeat. I also wanted to understand more about what was happening chemically. I took a few very introductory chemistry courses. When I moved to Los Angeles there were some nice opportunities to take courses at the Institute of Art and Olfaction. That was amazing. I slowly had more opportunities to show work that scent was a part of, so I got to experiment a lot in the studio. I set up a lab and continue to experiment. Recently I’ve had opportunities to create scent for events as well which has been great. Creating one-offs and working in spaces with lots of people in them has been super fun and interesting. I enjoy the challenges of the practice. I love the struggle with language around scent, which I find important and continually interesting. With scent you are in your own world, you have your own resonances, you have your own memories. I know what I want something to smell like but it might mean nothing to anyone else, or it will mean nothing familiar to someone else. To let go of that control has always been the exciting part. But the other piece of it is that there’s no control, so if I really needed to replicate something for a sculpture, because it’s been sold, and there is an expectation of the person who has purchased it, I need to be able to do that. Or if I wanted to sell a fragrance, which I’ve been interested in doing as a conceptual but still wearable fragrance, it needs to be replicable. Scent sort of took my practice outside of abstraction, working with formulas and source materials.  

About two years ago, I started a multidisciplinary creative studio. Most of our jobs are  identity branding for different kinds of organizations, and businesses. We do smaller projects for artists, architects or scholars, and then larger branding or rebranding projects for businesses, corporations, foundations, etc. We offer scent branding as well, mainly because it’s important to us to continue doing what we love doing, but also just because we don’t want to lop off important parts of our artistic and design practices when we work. This all really came together when Shannon Cochrane (FADO’s director), being the amazing brain that she is, said something funny. We were talking about costs for rebranding, and she said “Well, for that price this website had better smell.” (laughs) I thought, “Okay, then it will.” People typically have budgets for marketing, in business worlds. But for nonprofits and for artists organizations there’s a tension there, they might only have a certain amount earmarked for it. The next prompt that came from FADO was during our strategy phase, we asked: How does this website perform? We knew right away that one of the ways the site was going to perform was by smelling. That led to using smell as a guide for the navigational system, which was then paired with colour. Each colour then had a smell, and then each smell and colour was a section of the website. As you navigate through the site, each category of work has a smell with a corresponding color.  It’s technical and tactical, really, it’s both those things, but so experimental and fun. We are now composing the individual scents in the FADO collection.  PERFORMANCE YELLOW is the first scent that we formulated, and ENGAGEMENT PINK came next. I’m sure you’ve heard some of the future crazy ideas.

JK: I’m privy to some of them. There may be a way that I’ll help animate those in some capacity.

AC: Working with FADO has  been  a dream job. We’ve loved getting into Shannon’s brain and figuring out how to represent that organization in a way that also was strategic. The history of FADO was just so important, and the website is an archive site, essentially. The experience of liveness, of aliveness of performance all at once.

JK: Prior to starting my graduate program placement at FADO, I had been working on pitch for a performance piece. I kept trying to think about, I have so many friends in other parts of the world, and how I could potentially make the digital viewing experience be somewhat distinctive for them. I started trying to consider these ways of creating a scent component that they could receive in the mail that included a description of how to engage with that particular scent experience during their viewing of the performance online. I told somebody at one point when I went to buy a very specific kind of incense and they replied, “Oh, haha, like smell-o-vision back in the day!” I thought, “Oh, I shouldn’t have even tried to explain what I was going to do. Because it’s not that.” (laughs) When I then learned about FADO’s PERFORMANCE YELLOW  and ENGAGEMENT PINK scents, I thought “Wow, you’re both already so ahead of the curve and really have dove into it in such an incredible way and created something spectacular.”

AC: Many people in North America reference smell-o-vision and scholars reference it too when they talk about scent and affect. Culturally there are so many ways in which  different people, ourselves included, interact with smell in different capacities that we don’t actually acknowledge. It’s a very underrepresented misunderstood sense, for interesting reasons. That’s why I love the idea of it as navigation because imagine if you’re lost in a physical space, and the only way through is the smell. It’s incredibly interesting. You can’t rely on it. Even when you describe a smell, we often rely on how things look visually to describe it. 

JK: There’s a book that I’m rereading right now that came out in 2006. It’s about Marie Antoinette’s personal perfumer. It’s incredibly detailed. They really went deep into his archives and records which are still kept in Paris, he kept quite detailed records. The book itself is a bit gossipy almost, or sort of salacious, it’s not necessarily a complex read. There are really spectacular details about how he created his scents. Marie Antoinette is perhaps not the first, but is an accessible example of a cultural icon that people wanted to emulate, for which we have documentation. So because this perfumer that was working with her, which became known, people wanted to buy his fragrances because they wanted to smell like her. That period in France was when images were first able to be quickly reproduced in print, which influenced people wanting what they saw French royalty to have.  Anyway the descriptions of the scents and the processes that went into making them is fascinating, especially the actual composition of some of the fragrances and then how they were used.

AC: I’ve heard of it but I’ve not not read it. Anything that gets really descriptive of scent gets quite fascinating. It takes you down this narrative path, but one that’s not linear, you know?

JK: I would love to know about your creative practice in LA. What excites you in LA? What, what about living in LA is fulfilling creatively? 

AC: I spend a lot of time working with clients now, and with client projects, my research practice has elaborated and shifted. This shift has been a driving force of building up my business while  keeping a balance with studio time. What I love about being in LA is that I can be in my studio all the time. One door is open to the outside so I’m somewhat outside all the time. The flowers, the trees are just incredible all year round, and super fascinating. Asking, “What the fuck is that smell?” is constantly in my world. It had happened already before moving here, but I’m just a little bit less interested in being in a dark room editing. So when I do have to do that, I’m quite focused and concentrated on it and block off a three week edit and just go for it and actually work elsewhere, because otherwise I’m too distracted. You know, the cliché about the light in California is real. It’s a white light and it’s just so bright. Something I don’t like is that it can be hard to have that gloomy, pensive, introverted time.

JK: I’ve never heard that about LA before, but that’s so fascinating to think about, because you’re right, it would just be this constant sense of bright sunny weather. You just need to be out enjoying it or something, huh?

AC: Yeah. It’s so easy to go meet people for coffee or dinner, or just be outside or go to a park. There’s this feeling that I personally can never shake. I’ve been here almost eight years now. The feeling of summer, which is an amazing feeling. But without winter, it can be…I experience it as excess. It’s not in balance. I really have had to create these moments, artificial moments of darkness. To follow the tracks within myself and to be more internal. Over the past few years I was working on and off on this video piece called Kathy, which is the first piece I made following a single actor’s career. It’s all clips of Kathy Bates, all of her performances from the early ‘80s to 2020. That was a challenge. The secondary role that she’s constantly playing, even when she’s a main character, because she’s there to make us feel better about our lives, essentially. She rarely plays a “nice character.”With this kind of studio setup, I am so grateful for the ventilation and access to nature for scent work. But I need the opposite sometimes. I need to actually have all my senses shut down, except for my eyes, and my inner world for cutting and for watching film. 

JK: Do you still consider film an active part of your practice? 

AC: Film is definitely the core. It’s almost always my frame of reference. In terms of what I spend my time doing, I balance between reading and watching films. I’ll go see shows and I know film history much better than sculpture history, for example. Film is still what I care about most. I dip in and out of the parts of filmmaking that I care about, and for my own practice, I’m always down to see what’s happening for other people. I’m sort of in the center of it here in LA, a bit too much in the center of it sometimes. It’s such an industry focused city. There’s not necessarily a lot of criticality around that. 

Artist
Jordan King

Canada

Jordan King is an artist, curator and writer engaged in archival research of performance and intergenerational dialogue. Her formative years were spent immersed in nightlife culture which continues to influence her work. Her practice is rooted in performance, archival research and intergenerational connectivity. 

An Interview with Margaret Dragu

Jordan King · Margaret Dragu Interview


This interview transcript has been edited for clarity.

Jordan King: Margaret Dragu, icon of performance art, Canadian icon, Canadian legend, I’ll try not to be overly or embarrassingly effusive. But I am so excited to be speaking with you about your work, your involvement with FADO Performance Art Centre here in Toronto, your career, some of your archival material that now lives at FADO. Can we start at the beginning? Can you talk a bit about how you emerged into the world of performance art in Toronto?

Margaret Dragu: Wow, well, geez, don’t forget, when I first started making performance art, it wasn’t called that, we didn’t have that name. That came later. I don’t know quite when we all started doing that, sometime in the ’80s I suppose. But it was called… we had stabs at calling it different things. But most of all, we didn’t call it anything. I mean, there was a lot of mushy boundaries of whatever it was we were doing. And we would often just call things… the work or the piece, “I’m working on a new piece.” Sounds like we were plumbers. And for a while that satisfied. There wasn’t any particular interest or demand to have any classification or nomenclature over it. But performance art eventually arose from there. Action, “hauntlung,” all these all these other words, were all possible too. I came to Toronto from Montréal. And I went to Montréal from New York. I went to New York from Calgary and I went to Calgary from Regina. So if you think of that as a bunch of little Russian dolls, that’s already so much action. Anyways, I did get to Toronto, which was ’73 or ’74. Somewhere in there, I can’t really remember. I came calling myself various things. Tom Dean used to call me an ‘art dancer’ in Montréal. Because I was a dancer, I called myself a dancer. And I did dance/think sort of things, although I did installation and a bunch of other things and video and film, and other things. I was working with artists. But my first discipline was dance and choreography. And so he called me an art dancer, which was kind of a good term. I left Montréal after also establishing myself as a burlesque artist as well as a dancer and choreographer in contemporary dance, as also a dancer working in an art gallery, which there was a lot of that happening in New York when I was there before I came to Montréal. So I arrived to Toronto, with a sort of, maybe a bit of a social entree to General Idea because of Tom Dean, and this Montréal, and a few of those connections from Vancouver, the early days of all of the Western Front people, plus all the people who went down into the United States into California. There was that crossover [from] File Magazine, they were all [into] you know, mail art, blah, blah, yadda, yadda, yadda. The scene was smaller. You know, it was a different time. Now nobody even phones me out of the blue, people make an appointment [for] a phone call.

JK: Do you remember when people used to just pop over to your friends [place]? I don’t think of myself as that old but when I tell people things like this… they seem horrified that you would just show up on someone’s doorstep.

MD: Yeah, I mean, I had so few social boundaries, I had to learn all of those. I was an only child. I didn’t know anything. But I was learning them in an era where it was very loose, it was much easier. There was so much collective community, people were living in houses with six or eight people. There were people coming and going all the time. It was just such a different time. You could make a soy bean casserole and just roll into someone’s collective commune. It was seven o’clock at night, [you could] crack open a bottle of wine and party.

JK: I’m curious about Toronto at that time, and [w]hat your experience was.

MD: It seemed really uptight to me. I mean, they had already gotten more modern, I suppose. But it was Toronto the good, it was Hogtown, it was really WASP. It was so different than Montreal and New York. I mean, all of them were different from each other. But at that time, it was really different. Toronto is much more interesting now. You really want to be alive now more[so] than back then. [It’s] good. [Back then] was so stuffy and full of itself, like, you know, it really thought banking and the media and politics and everything. For English speaking Canada, it shone light out of its asshole. In Toronto, it was just so colloquial or parochial. All the “-ials,” it over time got much better with more immigrants and refugees [and] way more diversity. The world was also changing, but that real clamp of WASP power just had to ease a bit. I mean, I still feel it when I’m there.

JK: I think it still exist to a certain extent. And having lived in New York and having had a stint here [in Toronto previously]. And then having worked [remotely for a gallery] in Montréal… it’s fascinating to hear you say some of these things, some of which are still true today. Those mentalities that [continue to] exist in each of those places.

MD: [T]he province of Québec is famous for its challenges with diversity and cultures, particularly around women’s issues, the head dress, etc. All these things are all a legacy from what French law was, that they are still interpreting and percolating through. It doesn’t come from nowhere. These tendencies or problems, [are so hard to get rid of. [A]nyways, I arrived [in Toronto]. It was the very beginning of the artist-run centre movement. So there was Niagara Artists Collective in St. Catherines going [on at] the same time as the Western Front in Vancouver, in the same time as A Space in Toronto. [B]ack then it was just those three. Quite quickly it grew after that, but that was what was there. I just immediately went to see General Idea, and hung out a bit and went to A Space and hung out a bit and just started making things again. There wasn’t really much of a public at that point, although I was very fascinated by publicity, etc. And delved into that, onto what all the terrors of that can mean. Nobody had anything to lose. I mean, the budgets were, you know, peanuts. And they were, again, just these very loose collectives. So you could wander in and say, “Hi, I’m here, I want to teach dance classes for artists to everybody every morning at A Space” and somebody in the office would say, “Gee, that’s a good idea.” You just start to say, “Oh, should we let people know?” there was no email or anything back then. They [would say], “Well, [s]hould [we make a] little poster? You know what, there’s a [printing] press downstairs, they just moved [in, called] Coach House, into the basement of A Space. Maybe there’s somebody down there who could do something.” It was all so primitive in a kind of way. New York was not much different from that either at that point. St. Mark’s Place was tiny.

JK: What would you say you were carrying with you in terms of your approach to performance at that point in time? Was there something you think you were setting out to do? [Or] that you remember feeling compelled to do that [you felt] was missing?

MD: I think I felt more alone as a choreographer in Montréal. And also, although I had some acceptance as being a choreographer, making visual art and also stripping. That whole thing had to be kind of reconstructed in Toronto. But what was interesting in Toronto was there was a whole community of people who were independent choreographers [who were] working on things. I had a built in community to fall into; 15 Dance Lab, Miriam and Lawrence Adams, Elizabeth Chitty, Johanna Householder, Louise Garfield, Lily Eng, Peter Dudar [there were] so many people who were working differently than me, but we were vaguely alike. We weren’t fitting in to dance. We hadn’t really started calling it performance art quite yet. But we were interested in video, art and installation, things were more visually based and we had a lot in common. The video truck which Miriam and Lawrence Adams took over at A Space for a while, the Hummer sisters all these things were all happening all at the same time, we were impacting each other.  So it was a very rich… In retrospect, I could see that it was a really rich time [and] it was a good thing to go to Toronto and find so many collaborators and people who were thinking around the same things as I was. Much harder was being a burlesque entertainer in such an uptight WASP community. This was a real hard sell within the artists community, [which] was still very WASPy. I felt other in so many ways. But that also changed. I mean, all these things changed. It’s just so… To harp on it isn’t fair, because it evolved.

JK: That’s how, I think, I first learned about your work was doing research on venues in Toronto. I read about a place called the Warwick Hotel.

MD: I don’t think I ever actually danced in the Warwick, although The Silver Dollar was part of the Warwick Hotel, [and I] had lots of friends there. I dropped in and out, it’s not like it was off my radar. But that wasn’t one of my clubs. I liked it [though]. There was a big benefit there [which] I organized for the Canadian Association for Burlesque Entertainers [but] I didn’t perform in that. [I]t was it’s not like I wasn’t there [it] just wasn’t one of my places.

JK: That could possibly be a Wikipedia error that I believed, and I know better than to believe what I see on Wikipedia. [E]ither way, I think that I [saw] that somewhere [and] I was really fascinated to read about performance artists [active] in sort of strip clubs, [in] burlesque spaces, this kind of thing. [T]hose [were] worlds that I’d come up in, in Vancouver in the 2000s, and know[ing] what a fascinating confluence [they could be]. Just today, I [had] some Hi-8 tapes digitized at V-Tape. I didn’t even realize we had documentation of a cabaret show that [some friends and I self-produced] in Vancouver in 2001. [It was] cabaret/performance art/[strip], all these things [blurred]. So to learn about this happening in Toronto in the 1970s, and then to learn about your work… I was really blown away.

MD: [That’s] I guess another example of that Zeitgeist magic, right? Nobody invents any of these things, right? I mean, we’re just responding to the times. [I]t’s all happening quite simultaneously. I was very much in a publicity spotlight, I put myself in that publicity spotlight without knowing anything, really what press can mean, at that point in time. People think I was maybe the only one, I was not the only one who was doing performance art and burlesque work at the same time and kind of wobbling between the two. But as I started to work, I got more interested in that and bringing what I used to say “I want to bring Yonge street into the gallery, I want to bring the gallery into Yonge Street.” [I]n fact, they were sometimes complete disastrous collisions, sometimes very uncomfortable collisions. Sometimes they were fabulous collisions and morphings. I liked getting to one point where there was not so much difference at some point in between what I was doing in both of those places, and within certain restrictions. [T]hat interested me. [T]here are times when I wanted everything to be completely compartmentalized. There were times when I liked everything to be morphing, then there were times when I thought I knew what I was doing. And now I absolutely know that I do not. I mean, at the moment, things are so liminal and morphing, and uncomfortable and confusing, and it’s great, actually! I used to really think I knew what performance art was for me, and that I really hated theatre and I really hated dance. I knew where I stood. Aesthetically I felt I knew what drove those disciplines in different ways. I could really feel it, sense it, and articulate it. And now I don’t and it’s great. It’s great. I got off balance [when I met] Justine Chambers who’s a choreographer [and] a multidisciplinary artist, known for being a choreographer and a dancer, but she does many other things, she operates out of here [Vancouver]. She’s what I call a talking/thinking/dancer. But a conceptual, modern dancer, more like performance art. [She] really knows critical theory and other very smart things, and has worked with many artists of many disciplines. And doesn’t do cornball contemporary modern dance, which I still hate. I still hate that, no problem. I really, really hate that. Look[ing] into the horizon line you think, “What are you looking at out there? And why are you waving your arms around and looking sad and out at the horizon line?” Just stop that shit. The same is true for stripping. Same is true for performance art. Same is true for painting. Same is true for everything. It has to be about something, [or] driven, it has to be juicy and succulent and about something. [Y]ou have to know what it is, it has to be really important, or, you know, go home.

JK: Can you talk a little bit about what it was like to be in those worlds, because I also think that because some of these social classes don’t exist in the same way as maybe they did in my memory when I was first coming up in my ’20s. Or that stripping and burlesque was seen as such a sort of low form of entertainment. I mean, it was seen as “You’ve made poor choices in life, you’ve ended up here.” That wasn’t my personal experience. But I was a burlesque performer in the pre social media era, the Neo burlesque movement I see as being very different than what burlesque was even 20 years ago, never mind 30 and 40 years ago. I have an understanding of the history of [burlesque], about the evolution from burlesque to then stripping, when it became possible to be fully naked on stage in some provinces. How did you dance between those worlds? And how did people treat you?

MD: Well, the lack of respect was just something that grew to be normal. Unless someone was other[ed] in another way, you know, so drag queen performers and transsexual performers and transvestite performers, all these people that you would meet in the nightlife, were colleagues and those environments were more friendly and easier than a straight theatre or gallery. It just took a very long time for all of those things to evolve. But the lack of respect is… was stunning. What’s interesting is it reveals that, particularly around sexuality, and morality and things that are highly controlled by government, and church and society, and communities and family, and all those institutions, they’re deeply threatened. They’re very threatened by something that they don’t understand. I was always amazed at the complete prejudice. I don’t know why it just seems to be something I had to learn every day, I suppose, [r]e-learn every day, was that people thought they knew what happened in strip clubs, or what stripping was or how women were performing, or how men were performing or how drag queens were performing. They think they think they know all this, and they’ve actually never even stuck their nose in. [T]hey really are keen on making a lot of laws and have power to make laws over something they know nothing about. [T]his just seems stunning to me. And yet, it’s so common. [E]verybody thinks they know everything about sex, [t]hey know everything about desire, they know everything about what people should be doing and is right and is wrong and what they should be doing in public bathrooms. For Christ’s sake, get out of public bathrooms, you right-wing Christian people! What is it with the bathroom thing?

JK: I’m going to bring it back to Toronto because I am really curious to understand how it is that your archival materials came to be at FADO and what the relationship with FADO was like. So not that we will necessarily recount the entire chronology of your travels and movement but I understand that you left Toronto in the 1980s for Vancouver, then in the 1990s is when FADO came into existence. FADO Performance Art Center, Paul Couillard, and Tanya Mars. I think quite early on some of your material does show up in the archive, at least as [FADO] having maybe brought you out to participate in a performance in Toronto in the 1990s. Even though you were no longer living in Toronto at that point.

MD: Yes, that’s kind of basically it. That was, you know, great. I mean, just to return to Toronto, after a big life change, and, you know, having a baby and all my work was so different. I left Toronto, somewhat bitterly and to come back and, and realize, “Oh, look, it’s already so different.” It kept being different, in a good way. They were welcoming and supportive. And again, it was just nice to connect, then I had, you know, certainly two communities and other communities in the world that I was connecting with, I felt very much part of a performance art community, I still feel that I am although we’re all feeling a little isolated, I suppose. But [it was] fabulous. There weren’t really any archives that were resting with FADO. Until at one point, Paul and I were working on a project, actually the one you’re interested in, the Cleaning and Loving (It) project. Once we wanted to do that, which was a bigger thing than most of the things we’ve done. He wanted to do a book, he wanted to do a performance, he wanted it to be a residency. We were working things out by mail back then, there still wasn’t a lot of email. We sent long letters to each other and I would send him copies of clippings that he dutifully saved, and you know, organized, all this all this stuff towards this project, [w]here he also interviewed me, he made a DVD. I mean, all of this thing was quite a long project, because there was actually two parts to it over a several year period. That’s it, I guess. Now that technology doesn’t even [function] anymore, right? I don’t have a DVD player on my computer or any of my computers here.

JK: I was able to watch Cleaning and Loving (It) on DVD in the FADO archives. It is so great as a performance to really dive into because there’s so really rich commentary in it. Can you describe it? And also maybe describe [what your intention was]?

MD: Yes, now this is quite a long time ago… memory… where art thou? As I recall, [there were] two sections of the performance. There were individual performances that I was doing in people’s houses and apartments, where I would clean and shoot the cleaning and do something with it. People kept asking me, “Why is that a performance? [To] just go into somebody’s house and clean their oven or clean their fridge or whatever.” But I was collecting certain kinds of narratives at the same time, for some of them. I was investigating, and I was also pushing what I thought one-on-one performances could be. They weren’t even in style quite then, that was later. After that lots of people did one-on-one performances in festivals where you could go and see someone in a hotel room and they would do a performance or you’d see someone one-on-one in a library. This is super common now [and] there were other people doing it. I’m not saying I invented it, I did not invent it. But at the time, I was very interested in how can a singular thing in a really private space be a performance. So anyways, that intrigued me and I had done parades before. Paul was interested in a parade.

I think he might only have known of the DWI Protest Parade that had been some years before Cleaning and Loving (It). [The DWI Protest Parade] was one of the years that the Pope had come or was coming or something because originally I was promised a bunch of policemen on horses with the parade permit that I [was issued]. And [then] the horses were all busy with the Pope or something. So I just had a policeman, which wasn’t actually the look I was [go]ing for. But that’s okay. I invited everybody I knew, I formed a union, which was a union of one. I [had] whole committees of people. I had a daycare committee, there were parents with children who [came], there was a whole bunch of people who had red [clown] noses for some reason, I don’t know why that happened. But it did. There was protest banners and flags and I made a petition. I did a bunch of striking in all the places that I went. I stopped working for as long as I could, which I think was maybe just a few weeks. And I went to all those places where I was working, and went on strike and protested and demanded to speak to the management to talk about labor issues. And I was actually very serious about almost all of them because at that point I was working a lot in theater. I went to see a lot of the theater people and to explain to them what I didn’t like about the form of theater, what I didn’t like about the labor conditions around theater. It wasn’t all goofy. An artist pal of mine, Sheila Young, made a beautiful cardboard crowd for me that open[ed] from a center seam, kind of like those decorated bells where they’re flat, and you open them up, and then they’re a [3-dimensional] bell. So that I could have a crowd of supporters with me all the time. But it flattened so I could carry it. And my protest flags, so I could get on the bus with a few of my protest flags and [with] the crowd. I [could] go to where I was protesting, and set up the crowd and have the flags and then start demanding to speak to management. Anyway, we started from Queen’s Park, and went all the way down past Richmond [St], stopping somewhere I can’t quite remember where for that DWI parade. After that, and all the negotiation [I] eventually went back to work with this new sense of clearing the air, about labor and aesthetics and stuff. Paul liked that and said, “Would you like to do something, I guess in response to that?” I said, “Well…” I don’t know how we arrived on the idea that I would do another parade. But we did. He took on the organizing of it, which was much harder because it was years later. He had to go to City Hall, he had to contact several council people to get support to get this parade permit. And in fact, there was another kind of snafu when we got there. There had just been a big protest with homeless people where there was a lot of violence against homeless people at Queen’s Park. So Queen’s Park was kind of locked down with barbed wire and more cops. Cops are a theme here. Everyone was extremely uptight about having another public event. So quickly after all of this, if people were beaten, I think there still was even blood on the floor. It was [as] if it wasn’t there, it was metaphoric, that there was blood on the steps of Queen’s Park. It’s because of that I decided, well, I better clean those steps like Mary Magdalene and that became a kind of art action I did in various ways. For other performances, for Lady Justice and HIV/AIDS issues, the morality of, “Out damn spot!” all these kinds of issues around blood and guilt and disease and judgment and all of that. [T]he ritual of washing, washing, washing. So that was just in situ because of what was happening politically in Toronto. It felt to me when I got off the airplane. We collected a whole bunch of people that w[ere] mostly artists, and artists who had children also came, Tom and Anne Dean and their kids were all there. We made flags, we had live music and I did a little solo which was also about laundry and dancing and other spontaneous things happened like one of the children just started… Tom had bought a big broom. So he swept all the way—that’s a nice, lovely task to do. That’s a really clean art task, “I’m just going to sweep Toronto clean.” So he just did that. Particularly up and down the ramps, he was really into ramps at the time. So he would find ramps and really sweep those ramps, and some of the children just started washing things. Because I also had big buckets of Lysol and gloves and stuff for the scrubbing of the steps, and a baby carriage that I was taking down as part of my parade thing. Some of the kids just started washing the mailboxes and park benches, the bus shelters and stuff like that. And other people just start in, just started getting into it. And we would have a little pause. I remember right at the AGO, I think Andrew Patterson [washed] that Henry Moore sculpture, it [was] just [one of] those things, you know, [we] weren’t like, “Oh,d we must do that.” But it’s those cosmic overlaps and serendipity, chance things are beautiful. I mean, you just need one clear idea and one prompt, you just have to let everybody find their way with it. Everyone was amazing, they were very responsive to the idea, I just had to keep them moving.

JK: It’s so beautifully documented. It’s quite fantastic to me that it exists because it really is a time period that not as much was documented. I’ve had great conversations with Shannon [Cochrane] about performance for camera and performance for video, the difficulties with trying to translate performance art in video, but I think it’s quite special that the video exists [and] there is documentation, there is a DVD and to really sit with it and to try to transport yourself to that period in time and to doing [work] like that. I think [it’s] quite spectacular. So there is this Margaret Dragu special collection at FADO. At some point in time you provided some of your archival material to Paul, is that correct? Or did Paul sort of put it together?

MD: Yeah, what FADO has is really just based on Paul’s and my correspondence. My archives are actually not… I don’t consider them to be at FADO. Those are just basically clippings. [T]hat’s what I sent him over time. I mean, there’s a few other ephemeral things, we found some very strange knitting in there, which was from another weird performance that was later. My archives are actually at VIVO, in Vancouver. That’s boxes and boxes and boxes of stuff. That’s posters and programs and photographs, and original photographs and clippings as well. But you know, all the original clippings, and all the archival stuff, videos, all that is at VIVO. [A]t one point, I just thought, I just can’t stand having this stuff under my bed anymore. It’s got to get out of here. I was just going to throw tons of stuff away. I thought I’m just going to put it in the garbage. I called VIVO and asked to speak to a technician and said, “How can I repurpose or safely dispose of all this old VHS tape, the cardboard? [D]o I have to take all that apart? What do I do with the tape and what to do with the plastic bits and like how do you do this?” He said, “Oh, there are places. I’ll call you back.” But he didn’t call me back. The people from the archive department, Karen Knights and Christa Dahl, called me about five minutes later and they said, “Don’t do anything. We’re coming over.” They came over with some gloves and some white boxes. I thought this is better than my wildest dreams and I mean they’re overwhelmed with the stuff they have to do, they really haven’t catalogued it and filed [it] and stuff like that. I mean, some has been but it still is a lot of stuff that needs to be done. I’m sure everybody who deals with archives says this all the time. Oh, there’s so much stuff to be sorted and labeled and done. But it got out of the house. Got out of the house—not house—but my little BC senior housing apartment here, and I was thrilled to get rid of it anyways. So the archives aren’t really at FADO. That is actually a misnomer. And I think Shannon wanted to get rid of them too. She had the same feeling. I think I did, “Let’s get rid of this shit.” I think she originally said, “Here’s this box, Paul [and] Margaret.” This was a while ago, before we did the videotaping for the toolbox for 7A*11D. She said, “Either, you know, take it or take what you want, I’m going to get rid of the rest and deal with it or organize it or whatever, do something with it.” She didn’t seem at all interested in it. Paul and I did and we laughed and laughed and laughed. It was so much fun to do. We just laughed so much looking at all that old stuff. And now here she is, she seems to be heading some kind of archive project. But I’ve also had a change of heart. I mean, I just, I used to say, you know dust bunnies under the bed, get rid of it, I don’t care. Or people would phone and say, “Oh, I saw this performance you did. I would like to redo it or do it as a version.” I’d say sure, go ahead. I had no interest. But over the last number of years, I’ve started to work with young, amazing artists who use the archive in a very creative and a very different way than what I imagine it’s not an homage, it’s not a redoing—its sourcing these things and creating very process driven creative fonds that go out to create new work that doesn’t necessarily look like the original at all, it is a different kind of way of looking at archives. So that’s Britta Wirthmüller, William Lockwheeler, Mikhail Prue, Felicity Taylor, and Justine Chambers. These are all people who work with archives in a very interesting, responsive way. I’ve had a change of feeling about it, it doesn’t seem just like dust bunnies anymore, it seems like just another source. It’s another language that you can, if you’re interested [in], that you can dip into.

JK: What’s interesting about it to me is that because now I’ve come to realize that there are these ten and twenty year cycles when it comes to culture, so that if you’re if you’re around long enough that you look back, say twenty years ago, and you sort of think oh my gosh, well look at how spectacular this was. Or if you’re somebody who’s coming up, and you are curious about what sort of legacies exist around the work that you want to do if you’re really going to actually go in and do you know, sort of proper research or appropriate research, then maybe you’re going to look at who some of the figures were doing the work ten, twenty, thirty, forty years ago. Now that documentation still exists. In the 20th century, like in the 1970s, there just wouldn’t have been any documentation [of performance] at all, from twenty to thirty years prior in a recorded way it would have been so scant.

MD: That’s true. I can assure you when I was young, I had no interest in what older artists were doing whatsoever. Whether it was I mean, they just… I didn’t care. It was very much over 30—you’re a bore. What I’m doing—really interesting. What went before—snoresville. So I just felt oppressed and repressed by everybody, including Toronto The Good, that I just, you know, I hated a lot of things. I spent a lot of time being really angry and really hating things, not being interested. I’m an autodidact, and although people, some people my age who are autodidacts, there’s not even very many of us. Most of them that I knew were older and dead now. And it was easy for autodidacts to kind of take this high moral [road] of like, “I’m a real artist, because I did not go to school.” Like, “You are not because you’re teaching so therefore, you know, you aren’t an artist, I’m the real thing.” And that’s a luxury that no one has anymore. I could not do any of the things that I do if I was younger now. I mean, no. It’s just like, you know, loving that you’re the school of hard knocks from some combination of jazz dance and contemporary dance in burlesque clubs as your education and training. That idea is just not going to fly. Everybody has a Masters—you’re getting yours now. I would not be surprised, it would be amazing, if you got a PhD. Look at Alex Tigchelaar. I can never pronounce her last name. But you know her.

JK: It’s so interesting to hear you say that because there really was a time, even within my life where it was thought, those who can’t do art, or those who can’t really commit to art, teach. You were really seen as a failed artist, if you were teaching.

MD: Yeah, another opportunity for lack of respect, we just never seem to run out of these. But it’s also, my experience can’t be projected on someone who’s younger, the cultural framework is completely different. The finances are different. All of this is so different. When I first started teaching in and out of art schools and universities as either a guest artist, or occasionally [as] a sessional, I felt it was my duty to tell people, “You know what, you don’t need to be here, you can just leave this classroom and go out and start making art, get a few other friends who are with you on making art, get a studio start producing, support each other, you need a community, but you don’t need to have this degree.” And in fact, that’s… I don’t think true anymore. And it’s partly because we have a bigger population and there’s more competition. Everything is so much bigger and more crowded. It is a way of making it… I used to think of what curators did, as a way of gatekeeping, as a way of silencing and censoring. You have to deal with these university institutions, you know, they’re all trying to be more LGBTQ BIPOC understanding, but this progress is slow. There has been progress. I’m not here to poop on things. There have been some changes that are, you know, not enough. And still, we need more, but you know, thank goodness there are some changes. That’s one of the fallouts is [that] absolutely everybody has to have a doctorate. So that’s why I call myself a doctor. If you notice how I sign my emails “Dr. Dragu.”

JK: I have to admit I didn’t.

MD: It says Doctor Dragu MD, PhD, because MD is my initials. So since I already have MD awarded to me all my life, I’m just going to claim the doctorship.

JK: I guess to sort of close things up, [I’d like] to inquire about your feelings now, and your thoughts about people engaging with your [archival] material? And what is it that you like, what comes up for you around that with artists going to seek out your work, and your archive and to study it?

MD: Well, I immediately said yes to you, when you called and when Shannon called and said, “Hey, Jordan’s doing this project. She’s fabulous. What do you think?” And I thought, “Well, I might have time to reflect on that thing that’s from a long time ago.” But for me, I’ve had some very good experiences lately with people doing a very long committed amount of energy to the archives. I mean, for example, Britta and William from Berlin at age 70, took a solo from 1975 that Britta found from Danse Collection Danse archives, and spent time talking with me and interviewing me and talking and then we extrapolated a bunch of things. And she then replied in a personal way and did a performance. Justine saw that and then we invited her to also come on board and then we started to develop things and then we raised some money. And then we got the two Berliners to come here. And we worked for several weeks. And we developed this whole glossary and archive based on that solo in particular, but that whole performance at that time, and other contextual issues around it. They all replied, personally, we developed more stuff. And then we found this way of developing what we called an art generating machine that was these sort of 65 recipe cards that are the spinal column of the archive and we use them in different ways. [Th]ey did a performance, Justine and I couldn’t go because of COVID, but we did a series of performances for camera on video that we sent to them that they could use inside their performance audio recordings, a lot of audio recordings that were the same as—with the same title as the rest of the cards that were like long kind of thoughts for me, it could all be taken apart in different ways. We were just finishing the digital archives, just how I got to know Alex and Mikhail. That became a generative thing [which] was and has been, and continues to be very exciting. I’m always amazed and interested in what these very creative, fabulous artists can do with an archive. [W]hen I’m with them, I’m discovering new things all the time, I’m remembering and forgetting—I’m really good at forgetting. But I’m remembering, I’m forgetting. And we are creating new things together based on what’s exposed, what we share, that it becomes just a very intimate thing to do with someone. I don’t just hand something over and say “Goodbye,” which is what I used to say. I expect it to be an intimate dialogue, I see this as being [one as] well now [that] we’ve spoken twice. [T]he second time was more intense than the first time but even the first time was good.

I expect something will surface from our talking and looking at that performance [Cleaning and Loving (It)], or a series of performances or that particular thing that we’re looking at, that we’re calling, Cleaning and Loving (It), part one and part two. And that something will happen that we will decide, well, this is what we want to do. [It will b]e very urgent and very exciting. [W]e will make some art and what can be more fun than making new art with someone.

JK: I hope that for people who are getting a chance to listen, they’re fascinated to hear about your really like quite prolific career as a performance artist in Canada.

MD: If you were paying me by the pound, I would be rich. I have made a lot of stuff. I love making art. I mean, that’s all I want to do.