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

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


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

Four mics set up, maybe six, maybe eight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anya moves the mic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another announcement on the PA, from CAMH.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I also miss the time of art.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now seated in the office chair, cross-legged.

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

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

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

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

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

Someone is at my door.

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

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

Now hidden behind the recycling bin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another announcement on the PA.

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

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


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

Performance
Holler Rat (the performance) by Anya Liftig

Curated by FADO Performance Art Centre and presented in partnership with Rendezvous With Madness

In Holler RatAnya Liftig’s recently published debut memoir, the writer and artist traces the many contradictions of her life—from her Appalachian childhood to her career as a performance artist, to a year-long period in which her life completely fell apart. Her story is a journey of catalysts, calamities, art-making and madness, and catharsis. 

Using her own book as a performance document, in Holler Rat (the performance) Anya Liftig performs a 6-hour reading of her memoir—the typical author appearance at a book launch elongated to absurdity—while moving around and taking up various positions on a basketball court empty of players and gameplay.

FADO has invited writer Malcolm Sutton to compose a text about this performance. As this is a performance about (writing and then) reading a book, Malcolms process for writing will also take shape as a time-based activity. Malcolm will be present for the 6-hours of the performance, writing alongside the unfolding of the performance—writing an article about the reading of a book. Malcolm’s text will be “published” on this website at the conclusion of the performance. You can read it HERE.

Rendezvous with Madness, presented by Workman Arts, is the first and largest arts and mental health festival in the world. Using art as the entry point to illuminate and investigate the realities and mythologies surrounding mental illness and addiction, Rendezvous With Madness spotlights the human capacity for endurance in the face of great challenges. This year’s tagline “Mind the Gaps” considers gaps in infrastructure and the systematic “cracks” people, particularly those with lived experience of mental health and addiction, fall through. It is a call to think through what is missing and how things could be better. This year the festival takes place from October 27–November 5, 2023

Artist
Anya Liftig

USA
www.anyaliftig.com

Anya Liftig is a performance artist and writer. Her works have been exhibited at TATE Modern, MOMA, Queens Museum, Movement Research, Performer Stammtisch Berlin, Performance Space London, and many other venues around the world. As a dancer and actress. Liftig’s work has been published and written about in theNew York Times Magazine,BOMB, The Wall Street Journal, Vogue Italia, PAJ, New York, Theater Magazine, and many others. Her experimental film and video work has been screened in festivals globally. Her essays have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and noted in Best American Non-Fiction. She is a Connecticut Council for the Arts Emerging Arts Fellow in Creative Writing, a recipient of a Franklin Furnace Award, and fellowships at MacDowell and Yaddo. 

Artist Orange

Just as a performance artist uses their body as their medium, this is a fragrance composed entirely of the orange tree: fruit, leaves, bark, roots, and flowers. Artist Orange performs itself.

Top Notes

neroli, blood orange

Middle Notes

fresh orange juice, petit grain

Base Notes

orange twig, orange seed