Imagined Spaces, Lost Objects
In April 2011, Imagined Spaces, Lost Objects brought together four women hailing from Berlin, Calgary, Saskatoon, and Ottawa to present recent works at Cinecycle in Toronto. This disparate group of artists with a diverse range of creative practices had individually crossed my path at various key moments within the previous year. Although performance is not necessarily the foundation for each of the artist’s individual work, I observed undeniably performative aspects inherent in each of their practices, even in those not coming from a time-based background.
In putting together this program, I followed an intuitive process, with a desire to collaborate with these four artists whose practices resonated deeply within me, embodying the performative from several perspectives:
Between the timeless and the transitory, between dream and reality, fact and fantasy, there emerges a potent junction. This intersection, a “no-man’s land,” straddles temporal veracity and produces a space difficult to pin down. In this imagined space, a series of self-consciously constructed identities come to embody an invested trace – of lost love, lost words, of lost or stolen objects. Lost and yet, the trace of what remains sticks in the memory, and to the body. And in this “no-man’s land” we find four women – charting four distinct paths on land in-between multiply defined worlds.
What are the ways in which each of these artists creates work that challenges their own sense of a self-constructed identity? The self vis-à-vis personal myth-making, and the myths that we confront in order to help us to break through to another level of awareness, of compassion and of consciousness – about who we are and about the world around us.
Juliana Barbaras: Antidote
The evening began with Julianna’s relational, one-on-one performance, Antidote. At the front of the room Julianna sat in a chair with a plank of wood across her lap facing an empty chair. A bowl of warm water rested on the wooden plank and beside her sat a pile of soft white towels. As the audience milled around and socialized, waiting for the event to start, Julianna patiently waited in a relaxed yet focused manner. Slowly one person at a time took their turn and sat across from her.
My encounter with Antidote was like that of a warm blanket, a softness that surrounds you. The blanket doesn’t ask: “Can I warm you?” – it simply does. As I sat having my hands tenderly washed with warm soapy water then gently massaged (this being the core of the action), I viscerally understood that this was a performance about compassion in its most transparent and available form, offered by a grounded and conscientious individual with an ability to listen to what is not necessarily being directly said. Julianna’s unique capacity for empathy allowed her to be fully present to each and every person sitting across from her.
Julianna has presented this work previously in performance contexts that were private, unlike this version, which was presented in front of a seated audience in the space that would soon become the stage for the rest of the evening. This created a whole other kind of dynamic where Julianna was on display and meeting intimately with one person at a time. Her actions were witnessed both by the participant and the assembling audience producing the feeling of a space within a space. It also generated an echo of empathy that unwittingly set the tone for the remainder of the event.
Amalie Atkins: Three Minute Miracle: Tracking the Wolf
Two performers entered the space wearing red dresses and matching shoes. They walked down the middle aisle in serene unison, separating to take up residence at their respective stations. Amalie Atkins took her seat on a stationary bicycle (sitting slightly behind the audience in the middle of the space) while Tanjalee Kuhl veered off to the side to take her place behind a keyboard. As Tanjalee began to play, Amalie began to pedal. Magically, a film appeared on the screen, brought to life by Amalie’s bicycle powered projector. Carried along by Tanjalee’s live soundtrack, Three Minute Miracle: Tracking the Wolf is a fanstasmatic journey of loss and discovery involving human-animal forms, snowshoes and a giant white frosted cake. In the darkened space of Cinecycle – a bike repair shop and a micro-cinema in one – this performance was uncannily fitting and quite mesmerizing, and created an atmosphere akin to the wondrous world appearing on the screen.
Captivated by the images it came as a delightful surprise when rather unexpectedly incidental sounds in the film (for example, birds chirping in a tree) were heard coming from the audience seated in the back row. When the main character of the film, The Wolf, began to lead a choir of animal-people in song, suddenly this entire row of audience members stood up, instantly forming the live choir, and launched into a rousing and somewhat psychedelic song about losing teeth. Suddenly Amalie stopped cycling and the film came to an abrupt pause. The lights came up and a third performer entered the space. It was The Wolf, holding a white cake plate trimmed in pink frosting. There was an Alice in Wonderland dream-like three-dimensional feeling to the appearance of this doppelganger. Removing the lid and exposing a small mound of golden teeth, The Wolf handed the platter to Amalie who proceeded to distribute the perfectly sculpted gleaming (and edible!) molars to the audience. An oddly cannibalistic gesture ensued when we started to hear (and feel) the crunch of teeth – between our own teeth.
Once the plate was emptied, Amalie moved back to her helm at the bicycle projector and revved up the motor again. The lights dimmed, the image returned and the choir, both on-screen and in-person, sang us to the conclusion of the teeth dilemma, in a shimmering vocal crescendo.
The various audio components of Amalie’s performance played an important role in the audience’s layered experience of the work, from the melancholic melody of the keyboard to the voices of the “spontaneous” choir, punctuated by the repetitive sounds of the bicycle and the projector itself; a series of constant clickings and whirrings functioning as the heartbeat of the performance.
The combined doubling of live and mediated images created by the live presence of the filmmaker, characters and sound from the film created a prolonged liminal space – like being inside a living dream. The effect of this slippery state was hallucinatory – a sustained uncanny experience in which a successive joining and separating of the rational and the irrational produced an undeniably irresistible destabilized present.
Laura Margita: Madame Blanche Serves Hors d’oeuvres from the Underworld
The sensation of a destabilized present continued with the next performance. In a cream-coloured peasant dress and sparkling vest, Laura Margita coyly took to the stage. Behind her a video image appeared: Laura in décolleté camisole with her face in shadow. Reminiscent of popular cop shows or courtroom dramas where the witness’s identity is protected, Laura began telling a tale and we quickly understood the reason for concealment. Laura was protecting herself from herself. We all listened (the “real-life” Laura included) as she told us the story of a disastrous failure of a performance that she would rather have completely forgotten.
The image changed to Laura sitting by a campfire, lit only by the flames, reading aloud some selections of her own poetry. As she finished each poem, she placed the sheets in the fire to watch them sizzle and burn up purging unnecessary remnants from her “sordid” past.
Laura’s performance was an exercise in peeling away layers of carapace – literally demonstrated when the artist took off her peasant dress to reveal a skin-toned bodice underneath. Ornamented with a low-slung belt and holster (a kind of shamanistic, protective shield), Laura moved through the audience, giving even more details of her performance failure, a work entitled Madame Blanche Hears Your Confessions. During this segment, she approached random audience members to offer them a strawberry to eat – delivered directly into their mouths on a plastic spoon attached to a toy car, hurdling down a foot long piece of plastic racecar track.
In between the campfire poetry readings, and Laura’s on-stage free-flowing recitation, one singular image from the past performance in question flashed on the screen. This image was the only document of the work left and its content attested to her still palpable mortification: an exceedingly intoxicated Laura being dragged away from the performance space by two friends.
Why re-visit such a painful past, and so publicly?
Laura created a work that intentionally wished to dig up a dark and dirty secret. Confronting her past with the audience as witness, she indirectly asked how we can muster compassion toward ourselves. In re-visiting this past, she opened up the space for another reading, not just a gratuitous spectacle of self-exploitation but an opportunity to demonstrate forgiveness for herself. Making vulnerability the key ingredient, the excruciation factor was extremely high: we felt for Laura, we cringed for Laura, and then we rejoiced for Laura, for her erroneous past and her questioning present – a moment of 20/20 hindsight in which her public disclosure affirmed a great deal of clarity.
Laura’s performance was intensely compelling in its poignancy, its lack of pretension and its honesty. She managed to ride a very fine edge between being in control, and being totally out of control. Keeping the audience on this dangerous precipice between art and life (what part is the art and which part is the life?) we were never quite sure whether she was actually performing or just being Laura. This contributed to an ongoing discomfort, extreme embarrassment – and simultaneous joy – that underlined her work, and our experience of the performance. An immediate intimacy was installed, and Laura made us feel completely at home in her orbit, even as the world around us became somewhat unbalanced. In searching for her equilibrium, we shared her journey of re-visiting her past in order to better understand the present.
Janine Eisenaecher: Eat Your Enemy #3, I am the Coca Cola of Art
Janine Eisenaecher presented another kind of purging ritual in which the demons of corporate culture, and two of its perceived representatives – Marina Abramovic and Coca Cola – were held up for display and (gentle) disparagement. This forged complicity came directly from a quote by the famous performance artist in question, in which she stated: “I am a brand like Coca Cola. I am the Coca Cola of Art.” This and other problematic things Abramovic has said got Janine thinking – about art, economics, power politics and the commodification of the artist:
“In Japan I was treated like God. If I would have told the students to jump out of a window they would have done it.”
“I can’t bear feminism. I can’t stand that in the USA they first of all count how many women there are in a group exhibition. Art never was democratic. […] When I started my career in Italy there were no female artists at all. I didn’t consider this a problem. I took it on like a man instead. I never felt underprivileged. I always felt superior.”
Janine read aloud these quotes and other litanies of “key terms” from pieces of paper, which she then taped to her dress. Using a sound processor and several pedals, she began to mix the sound of her own voice speaking Abramovic’s words with sounds bites from a video about a performance art boot camp that Abramovic gave in preparation for her now infamous performance The Artist is Present, creating rhythmic loops that slowly built up, intensified and then decayed. The stage was lined with bottles (a tall glass bottle format not found here in Canada) and cans of coke, which became an instrument as well, with its various attributes (for example, the flip-top tab) amplified through contact mics and further electronically treated.
Although sound was a crucial element, I wouldn’t necessarily consider this performance primarily a sound work. The ambient loops served as a soundtrack to the artist’s ritual, with the audio acting as another layer of the text:
“In real like I like to have fun.”
“You have to put your whole self in, say something. That makes you an artist. Spill your guts. No compromises. Be radical. Invent something new.”
“Discipline. Duration. Silence. Sex. Pain. Violence.”
Re-enactments of past Abramovic performances permeated the space – with actions such as Freeing the Body in which a dancer moves to an unheard soundtrack wearing nothing but a cagoule to hide the face and head; and AAA-AAA (in which a vocalist stands and repeatedly chants “AAA)”. Janine re-created her own Abramovic mini-retrospective infused with an additional level of critical thought and distance from the work.
Creating a series of actions that served to highlight the corporatization of art, Janine took us on a journey of self-effacement, a kind of emblematic erasure of “the artist”, for if the artist is subsumed, are we left with merely the symbol of the artist? In a sense Janine consumed herself through her performance. In a final exultant gesture, having lined up a row of coke bottles in the centre aisle, Janine popped them open one by one, doused herself and the other re-enactment performers and then urgently drank. This bubbly ebony elixir provided a kind of cleansing bath, and the last sips were probably the most harrowing to watch. After several bottles, she had to force it back, but her gag reflex finally gave way to a definitive, and triumphant affirmation: an enormous and sustained belch.
In presenting seemingly incongruent works, the ensemble of performances organically wove a tangible thread from one piece to the next. While it is a natural impulse to want to make links between disparate things, in the unfolding of the evening, the links built themselves. As theatre director and performance theorist Anne Bogart says, “It is not difficult to trigger the same emotion in everyone. What is difficult is to trigger complex associations so that everyone has a different experience.” As each artist offered her particular brand of authentic and empathetic presence, Imagined Spaces, Lost Objects became just that trigger.
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