Eyewitness Account: Appreciating The Chakras by Linda Montano
What is time, and how do we find meaning in its passage?
In an attempt to come to terms with these questions, Linda Montano has declared her entire life to be an artwork. While this bold, perhaps revolutionary, stance cannot fail to be seen as a challenge to the common wisdom of contemporary culture, Montano frames it in personal terms. Her task is to live each moment of her life with the focused attention and intention suggested by the notion of ‘art.’ Hence, if the focus of her life becomes looking after an aging parent, she finds herself doing ‘blood relations art’ [as she referred to it at the time of her visit: the term has since evolved into ‘BLOOD FAMILY ART’, and the particular project of taking care of her 88-year old father into ‘DAD ART’]. In this way, she reminds herself that the act of caring for another is not simply a matter of practicality, but also a practice, rife with all of the possibilities and challenges of producing form and meaning.
Montano’s commitment of her life to the service of art—or perhaps it should be viewed as a commitment of art to the service of her life—is consistent with her personality: dedicated, principled, visionary, full of heart, and by our culture’s standards, a bit wacky.
In January of 1999, Montano became the first performer in the TIME TIME TIME series, presenting an original 12-hour performance in two parts called APPRECIATING THE CHAKRAS. The invitation to Linda to kick off the series stemmed not solely from the obviously performative (and durational) declaration of her whole life as art, but also on the basis of several of her recognized works. Her collaboration with Tehching Hsieh on his conceptual endurance performance ART/LIFE: ONE YEAR PERFORMANCE guaranteed her place in art history: the two spent an entire year attached by an eight foot rope, trying to follow a rule of never touching. Linda followed up this project by conducting two seven-year investigations of the chakras. 14 YEARS OF LIVING ART was an elaborate research project and practice, of which the most visible element was the wearing of a single colour of clothing each year corresponding to the colour of the chakra she was investigating. For the first year, she dressed only in red. The next year, she dressed only in orange, and so forth.
How would an artist willing to tackle time-based works of such a monumental scale respond to the parameters of TIME TIME TIME? What sort of relationships would she set up among the elements of time, space, her performing body and the audience? And what is a twelve plus hour performance in the context of an entire life that has been declared to be art?
Montano’s solution to the physical demands of a twelve hour time frame was to divide the performance into two parts with distinct sets of participants, audiences and set-ups. APPRECIATING THE CHAKRAS was, in essence, two performances in one—the first very public and the second more intimate or private—with both parts taking place in a large rectangular room with hardwood floors and two washrooms, normally used as the studio space of a local theatre company, Canadia dell’Arte.
PART ONE: A PUBLIC SOUNDSCAPE
The first part of Montano’s performance was approximately four hours long. It began at about 8:30 in the evening and was open to the general public, with individuals free to come and go as they pleased. For this section, which could be described as a soundscape, Montano enlisted the help of eight artists, all active in the local Toronto performance art scene. Assembled by FADO, none of the performers had worked with or even met Montano before: they included myself (red chakra), Bernice Kaye (orange chakra), Koren Bellman (yellow chakra), Churla Burla (green chakra), Tanya Mars (blue chakra), Johanna Householder (violet chakra), Ed Johnson (white chakra) and W. A. Davison (sound).
Montano began by introducing APPRECIATING THE CHAKRAS to the audience as a workshop—to float the idea that its improvised framework was one in which the concept of mistakes on the part of the performers had no meaning. The piece had not been extensively developed or rehearsed by the group in advance. Prior to her arrival, Montano had requested the participation of seven performers, and “sound from heaven.” Each performer was responsible for choosing a different chakra; putting together an outfit corresponding to the colour of their chosen chakra (multi-hued, with some allowance for black, if necessary); and finding medical texts relating to the corresponding organs or body parts of the chosen chakra, as well as to the participant’s personal history (e.g. about a disease they or someone close to them had experienced). The night before the performance, we met for about three hours to configure the space, set up and test the equipment, talk to Linda about what we had discovered in our research, and find out how the performance would be structured.
The set-up was straightforward and largely improvisational. Each of the seven chakra performers would appear in sequence starting with the first chakra, red, associated with the base of the spine, through to the seventh chakra, white, associated with the top of the head. Each would read texts for half an hour, generating a total running time of three and a half hours. I would also act as a timekeeper/emcee, introducing each new performer and circulating through the audience with a sign that provided a visual picture of each chakra, and also indicating its colour and the predominant emotion or feeling associated with it. W. A. Davison was responsible for creating a live mix of the various soundtracks employed in the work.
Montano’s performance involved two distinct sections or actions. For the first 15 minutes of each of the chakra readings, she played a small Casio and used her voice in various ways—chanting, muttering and even coughing. For the second 15 minutes, which I indicated by blowing a whistle, Montano would circulate among the audience offering Tarot readings. The Tarot portion of her performance was not miked. The resulting soundscape mixed the miked voices of the performers and Linda, the soundtrack of a three and a half hour videotape being projected in the space, and music and sound textures from various cassette tapes. These elements were heavily mixed and also fed through a digital delay, guaranteeing that no one person, Linda included, could claim exclusive authorship of the unfolding soundtrack.
Each of the seven local performers were dressed to represent a different chakra, according to colour. The outfits were in the realm of spectacular costume rather than everyday street clothes. We were encouraged by Linda to assume a persona or character for our readings. Pauses, variations of rhythm and intonation, and the interjection of spontaneous commentary into the reading of the texts were also encouraged. In the preliminary ‘rehearsal’ that took place the evening before the performance, Linda suggested that we consider in what way we could frame our involvement in the performance as a personal healing ritual–or, put another way, to think about what we wished to be healed through the performance.
The delineation of the different chakra sequences was further enhanced by a video projection played on the wall behind Linda and the performers. The video featured seven half-hour sequences, each tinted with a colour filter corresponding to the appropriate chakra. Montano describes the video in this way:
I made this video to represent the stages of life and death, going through the seven chakras: sex, then childbirth, then breastfeeding, etc. The images are from friends and found. My own are ‘performances for video’ of putting needles in my face and tubes in my nose. The death images are from my time in India gathering death and burial and cremation things. The last images of children waving are of two friends’ children. It is a poignant look at aging and time and death and impermanence and goodbye and hello. I use slow motion for the same reasons, to look at dream time. Slow motion and dream time seem to correspond for me. Also I did 15 minutes forward and 15 minutes backward to talk about the ridiculousness of getting attached to things going one way. This way you can see something forward and then reversed. It is a comedic element, which works well for things like diving into a pool; I used it to address issues of diving into and out of life and desire and fear.
The performance was presented in a proscenium format, with the video projection and the performers at one end of the room, and the audience gathered in darkness at the other. Installational elements and the movement of the performers, however, worked to unify the space. The authority of the video projection was undermined by a bubble machine that periodically blew soap bubbles in front of the image. Padded mats and king-size mattresses were placed on the floor for the audience to sit or lay on. At the beginning of the performance, Montano invited the audience to understand their own experience as an essential aspect of the performance, expressing her hope—or perhaps presenting as an assignment—that each audience member give and/or receive a full body massage during the course of the evening. In addition to Montano’s forays into the audience to give Tarot readings, I as emcee/timekeeper occasionally offered massages to individual audience members, danced alone and with others in various areas of the space, and encouraged friendly touch among participants. Other chakra performers also mingled with audience members throughout the evening.
Rather than remaining as isolated voyeurs, many audience members clumped into small tribes on their mattresses, engaging with each other physically and verbally as the performance washed over them. The overall effect was a trance-like atmosphere that was initially disorienting for new arrivals, but that was clearly engaging to the many participants who seemed happy to spend several hours there. The sense of entering an altered reality, where the passage of time, the focus of one’s attention, and the physical concerns of one’s body are measured in different terms than those demanded by the everyday routines of working for pay, dealing with the city, or even watching television, was palpable. The atmosphere could perhaps best be compared to that of a ‘rave’—although the time was relatively early in the evening, the room was smoke-free, the sound was far below ear-splitting in volume, and there was very little dancing or movement on the part of the audience.
At the end of the 3 1/2-hour sequence of chakra performances, Linda instructed me to abruptly turn on the fluorescent overhead lights. This immediately shattered the atmosphere that had been created, and brought howls of outrage from some audience members. The deliberate jarring of the senses, she explained, was to prepare the audience to re-enter the world of everyday reality, which requires a certain kind of physical and psychic shielding to maintain one’s safety. Before everyone left, Montano asked audience members to form a circle. She had each audience member present a sound/movement gesture. After each participant presented her or his gesture, the group repeated the gesture, travelling around the circle of almost a hundred who remained. This simple exercise was meant to bring each of us back to a rooted sense of self, while at the same time reinforcing the sense of community created by the performance. This participatory act was undertaken by everyone with varying degrees of self-consciousness and good humour. Once the task had travelled the entire circle, Linda and the audience bade each other farewell. Bodies began to disappear into the cold night while some of the equipment was struck by those who had chosen to stay for the second part of the performance.
PART TWO: PRIVATE DREAM MEDITATION
The second section of the performance—about eight hours long—was open to anyone who had attended the first, but required a commitment by the participants to stay the full length of the performance and to hold the silence of the space through a 7-hour “dream meditation” process. Montano’s role in this part of the piece could be likened to that of a facilitator, with the audience as contributing participants in the experience.
A dozen or so people remained for this dream meditation. The mattresses were dragged together into a central circle. Pillows, sheets and blankets were brought out. The flourescent lights were turned off, leaving only the dim glow of a lamp in a corner of the room. The doors were locked for safety. As our focus settled, we became aware of the vibrations of the floor (caused by the heaters used for the worm farm below us in the basement). We gathered together, each finding our own comfortable spot on the mattresses. Then Linda led us through some physical relaxation exercises to help us prepare for our night-time adventure. Linda asked each of us to choose one of the seven body chakras–one we felt was in need of healing energy–and to allow our consciousness to focus on this chakra as we fell asleep. The lights were turned out, and we lay together in the dark to drift into unconsciousness.
As we lay together in the dark, I played over the events of the evening in my head. The hypnotic sense of ‘tribe’ generated by the soundscape performance, with its subtle breakdown of some of the physical walls that separate us from communal touch, was now being extended to our more intimate group. There are few places in our culture where a group of adult strangers come together to sleep side-by-side, and I was keenly aware of the novelty of our group vulnerability. Adrenalized and fatigued by the performance, I found it difficult to fall asleep, so I lay still, listening to the sounds of the building and of the breathing, shifting bodies around me. The opposing tensions of familiar nestling and unfamiliar surroundings pulled me in and out of sleep, like waves lapping at the shoreline. Time passed, as I tried to quiet my thoughts and sink into body feeling. Occasionally I would check the clock, still playing timekeeper for the group.
Laying there, I was aware how I felt both alone and together at the same time. I could also feel the effects of time–not so much an action caused by time itself, but rather, the inevitability that things change as time passes. Nothing remains static, and time is what shows this truth to us.
After 7 hours, I signalled Linda, and she began to boil water and make cups of herbal tea, placing one beside each person to wake them up. I put on the lamplight, and also some soft music to indicate that morning had arrived. People sat up and began stretching, going to the bathroom, drinking tea. Soon we were all awake, and Linda called us together. We sat clumped together on the mattresses in a kind of circle, and Linda began to speak. She talked about communion, how a gesture as simple as sleeping beside one another could create a feeling of community. She invited each of us to share our experience of the night, if we wished. This was done in the manner of a talking circle, with a talisman held by each person as she or he spoke, the others listening in attentive silence. People spoke of how they felt, of their dreams, of the chakras they had chosen and why, of the healing they had sought or felt, of what healing was or might be, of family memories, of the day ahead, until everyone who wished to had spoken. Then we closed our circle, tidied up, said goodbye, and stepped out into the cold, sunny Sunday air.
I was left to delve deeper into the question of what community is, of what kind of community exists or is possible in the relationship between performer and audience, and to wonder about the markers we use to delineate where one thing ends and the next begins.
TIME TIME TIME presented works ranging from 12 hours to several days. Ritual, endurance, attention span, community-building, altering states of consciousness, boundaries between public and private, narrative, linearity and transformation were explored in the series by artists presenting their compelling, urgent visions of ourselves and our world at the end of the 20th Century.
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