On Escapist Action: Performance in Recession
Laura Paolini

The context of performing in Canada has changed extensively since Dot Tuer first observed these actions: 

On Queen Street corners, performance art is an everyday occurrence of spontaneous street actions and bodily gestures.(1) 

It is somewhere in this dystopic territory – one in which the looking glass of simulation mirrors back narratives of the subject and representation of the body – that a context for performance art emerges in the 1980s.(2)

How does performance exist now? And just as importantly – why? Fast-forward twenty five years, and Parkdale still retains some of its charm (and problems), sandwiched between the continually gentrifying Queen Street West and Roncesvalles village. Toronto’s architectural boom, orchestrated to remake it as a “city of innovation” is punctuated by a sudden turn for the worst at the end of the first decade of the 21st century. Globally, from bombings to political scandals and massive natural disasters, to the weakening dollar, crash of the housing market and global recession, the last ten years have been the bleakest in history (according to some)(3). Like the scenarios in Dot Tuer’s Toronto, seen through the looking glass the city becomes a stage where performer’s motions and gestures evoke all the feelings the recession has inflicted.(4) The five artists (four projects) curated by Don Simmons in Escapist Action: Performance in Recession and focused on in this essay, best embody the zeitgeist of the current economic state, and not in their actions alone, but in how these gestures evoke very telling audience responses.

Julian Higuerey Núñez and Ignacio Peréz Peréz collaborated in week-long series of performances, created using the 72 objects they received during their first day of performance, in their titled Open Barter Market. The artists brought with them 72 objects from their hometown of Caracas, Venezuela, with hopes to trade equally meaningful objects with audience members. The objects from Venezuela weren’t merely souvenirs, but ranged from personal momentos given by loved ones to childhood relics, each with a story of their own, that the artists were happy to share with you while you traded your object with them. They too, were interested in the story of your object. This initial gesture would set the stage for the rest of the week. Putting restraints and parameters around the work in this manner establishes some control for the artists, but much of the power lies in the barteree.

I arrived at InterAccess on November 23rd to participate in the market. I scanned the gallery for the objects I wanted and negotiated the trades with one of the two artists. Afterwards each traded object is logged and a photo is taken of the barteree and their new object, as well as the artist and their new object. These records are then immediately put online on the artists’ blog. It was difficult for me to barter without having feelings of attachment and responsibility for what I was taking, and leaving behind. As I went through some stuff at home I found myself thinking “What will the artists find most useful?” Admittedly though, another sentiment took over: “Do I really need this?” But, one person’s (performance art) trash could be another person’s (performance art)treasure. One gallerist, bartering a birdcage mentions, “Oh, this was just in my basement for a long time.” Perhaps that’s not exactly the best criteria for offering great source material. Ignacio said his exchange with me was one of the most meaningful ones of the day. What’s that old adage? What’s good for the goose is good for the gander?

During the week leading up to the performances on Black Friday, Red Flag Saturday and Grey Cup Sunday (weekend events of the Escapist Action series), Higuerey Núñez and Pérez Pérez performed with each of the 72 newly bartered objects, creating a new performance each hour on the hour, from 9am to 9pm for six days, accumulating a total of seventy two hours. The title of the project, The Artist and the Beanstock fittingly narrates the artists’ own experiences arriving to Toronto (change in climate, and a certain amount of culture shock), while heralding the classic tale of Jack and the Beanstalk, where the hero’s error of trading his last piece of material wealth is remedied by finding new riches (by stealing from a giant). Each of the 72 performances were streamed live on the web making thework accessible, and invariably added an ironic tone. Information on the internet has fed recession fears and yet has connected people to news (not to mention, speculation) and spurred change faster than ever.

In the wake of this, the performance series Escapist Actions: Performance In Recession did a uniquely Canadian thing and offered a range of relatively objective and unscathing responses, while projecting an understanding of just how jarring the current economic climate is. We are all restless, and we are a restless audience. This is key to understanding all the performances. The work shown made people feel restless for a variety of reasons, and this restlessness is a reflection not only of the work, but of the response regular folk have to the current economic recession.

InterAccess, the main venue for the series, is currently facing hard times of its own, making the whole situation rather apropos. Having my own personal and professional ties to InterAccess, for me this feeling lingered as I watch the performances, and I sensed that this and other feelings of apprehension are present in all the work. Pérez Pérez and Higuerey Núñez’s project took over the entire gallery and permeates the space. Each hourly performance was created on the spot, completely improvised based on the bartered object. For one performance, Pérez Pérez used twine to wrap around a central pillar at InterAccess, through the door handles, out the main doors, into the hall, back through the gallery space and around the same pillar, following the same path again and again until the string broke and needed to be tied together. After using up the twine, Pérez Pérez beckoned an assistant. The spool was placed in her hand, then he dropped to all fours and begged. She tossed the spool, and he fetched it. This gesture was repeated until he sat at her feet. This seamless transformation of a familiar space and familiar objects transitioned into a change of power dynamics. The artist begged, played, and cowered like a dog after the audience accommodated his transformation of the space. A fair exchange? Potentially, and disarming for the audience. 

Meanwhile, artist Tomas Jonsson had set up shop at 3072 Dundas Street West. Slightly north of Parkdale, this Junction neighbhourhood is still negotiating gentrification, littered with a glut of failing businesses and a whole new populace moving in. The goal of Jonsson’s work, titled Magpie was to create “a personal engagement with a variety store that has been a long time fixture in the Junction neighbourhood of Toronto, another area of the city whose retail identity is rapidly changing.” Jonsson purchased several items from this eclectic store, and set up shop across the street in front of a construction wall, marking where another store had been. In exchange for his goods, in a similar spirit to Núñez and Pérez, Jonsson asked participants to tell him what they wanted this empty lot to become, which he would then post on the wall. Rather than entertain escapism as passive consumption, his work very actively  subverts it, going straight to the heart of the matter, and the neighbourhood, to ask people directly about how they feel when they see their community being gentrified. The objects do not have the cache, it’s the stories. Suggestions included ‘shoe store,’ ‘diner,’ bank’,The artist’s agenda suddenly seemed very different than the community and the developer’s agenda. Perhaps it’s a case of confusing wants and needs.  Your story might be intriguing, and through this project the artist gives the viewer a voice, but dollars to donuts the Wal-mart still comes to town.

Later that night at InterAccess, claude wittmann presented his piece, my first witch piece. It was framed as an exploration of witches, and what it means to be accused of being a witch. Wearing all black and a charm made of feathers and pieces of an antler, the artist asked the audience sit on the floor with him. He explained his interest in the history of witches and how his fascination kept him on the fence. He wanted to believe and immerse himself but sometimes he couldn’t; a perplexing balance. He pointed to a jar of ‘flying ointment’ he had made, sitting in the centre of the circle, and listed its ingredients (stating that he omitted anything unethical or poisonous). He invited the audience to verify it, as it would be part of the performance. He then began to lead the audience in breathing and meditation exercises designed to dispel fears; He suggested people find a comfortable position, and express their feelings verbally throughout the meditation.

Accusations of witchcraft were fraught with anxieties, insecurities and outright sexism. Yet, it is not uncommon in situations of crisis to find a return to religion or the more spiritual. During and after World War I many new church groups emerged, begging mankind to repent from evil and return to God, and begging forgiveness for the atrocities and suffering of the Great War. Paralleling this was another lunatic fringe: the séance. This return to spirituality also provoked some to try to find a means of connecting to loved ones lost.(5) Connecting me to these ideas are wittmann’s own musings: “if we all decided not to commit to this image [an image of reality] it would disappear.” Here, we are given a very different reading of the definition of recession, one of going back, receding and withdrawing, this time into oneself.

Perhaps where things began to unravel in wittmann’s performance was when a protocol was suggested: during part two of the performance the artist asked the audience to apply the ointment to places on the body with particular energies -anywhere on the left side of the body or in contact with the earth, or on the genitals. It was perhaps this last suggestion that caught the audience off guard. Listen to your body; it’s all about you. As the performance progressed, the ointment was distributed and for those who chose to, applied. Some found the means to sink into themselves. wittmann became consumed by his actions. Would the ointment work if you wanted it to? The performance was aimed to make everyone feel like a witch, to become their own personal mediums for themselves, but instead became a spectacle. The audience couldn’t seem to find it in themselves to commit to wittmann’s sorcery. Another symptom of the recession era – doubt, mistrust and maligned séances. 

Depression-era entertainment was the subject of the next performance that evening. With the rise of the proverbial curtain, Rodolphe Yves Lapointe presented himself to the audience tied to the wooden chair he was sitting on holding a sign on black paper, upon which was written in white chalk: “will he survive his work?” This stylized cue card reminded me of the black and white text narration of silent movies. Movies were often indulged in during the Great Depression, as during times of recession in modern day, as they offered wholesome fantasies allowing viewers to escape their own harsh realities. Is it ironic that the 1930s film industry led to the boom of the Classical Hollywood era, only now to find Hollywood the source of so much personal drama and ennui in the age of reality television? Although Lapointe was able to untie himself, he kept certain parts of his body restrained with the ropes being held by the audience. Taking a small axe he cut an arbitrary amount of rope, and proceeded to tie classical sailing knots and deliver anecdotes about their names, uses, origins. Lapointe blew a whistle before each knot name,  turning the magician escape act into boy scout recreational activities. After tying the “hangman’s noose knot” he demonstrated its use (with the audience’s help) by hoisting sandbags equaling his weight. Furthering his demonstration he then wrapped the noose around his own neck. He smoked his “last cigarette” and punctuated his execution aesthetics with another title card, before asking for the audience’s help, one last time, in hanging himself. Despite their cooperation so far, in the end the audience refused to help him hang himself. But not before going half way, and offering a slight tension on the rope. Quite quickly, Lapointe slipped his neck from the noose and fell to the floor, ending the performance. Was this a plan b in case the audience really anted to see him hanged? The paradox of Lapointe’s performance lied in the assumption of autonomous, passive spectatorship. The audience watching Lapointe’s actions were asked to participate, yet compliance was assumed. When the audience refused to finish the job, so to speak, and their commitment annulled, one wonders if he was really going to do it.

The next night of the series, Red Flag Saturday, had two performances, one also taking a violent turn. The first, Calentura, is part of a series of new performance works by John G Boehme. “Looking into the performance of gender, specifically masculinity, the valorization of labour, the pursuit of leisure, and the marshaling of amity, John explores language and paralanguage, the spoken and gestural aspects of human communication.”(6) The work began with two videos projected on either wall of the gallery depicting teenagers throwing plates and fluorescent tubes into the camera. Boehme had a colleague with him. The younger accomplice and the artist enticed the audience to drink Pabst Blue Ribbon and Canadian Club whisky with them, as if to achieve camaraderie. The age difference between Boehme and his accomplice confused fraternal and paternal loyalties. Boehme took a few moments to take some drugs (or so it would appear) and then he tied a dresser to a ceiling beam, and Hitler’s face and the McDonald’s logo were drawn on either side with a black marker. The two fascist icons. Together they proceeded to throw knives at the swinging dresser, play the guitar (roaring single cords, played loudly and not too well) and entice the audience. It was unclear whether or not the work was meant to be participatory; maybe we were all just too scared to move. Once drawers were smashed Boehme cut the dresser from it’s tether, and his accomplice smashed it to pieces ending the performance.

Similarly to wittman’s personal exploration, the recession Boehme references is a return to memory and history. Because this performance was pretty stressful for the audience to experience, it’s hard to interpret anything leisurely about it. A clue in the form of a title: Calentura is a region in California where Boehme spent some of his youth. The artist mused to me after the performance that many of his friends there were surfers, some of whom had million-dollar surfing sponsorships from Billabong and Quiksilver. Angst riddled youth with spare time and copious spending money is a dubious combination. When youths reach the point of rebellion, these processes of questioning and breaking rules (and plates, sometimes) is normal, but now that these things can be put on YouTube and shared as a group, growing pains can be labeled deviant, and Boehme offered a stylized display of the typical worst. wittmann’s performance showed that everyone wants a scapegoat, and economic turmoil may try to solidify causal links between recession, anger and violence. Major research show this continues to be a red herring.(7) Boehme’s work makes the viewer wonder if they misspent their youth, and the deceptive power balance keeps the audience at bay. Both artists work illustrate escapist actions and coping mechanisms for financial turmoil, yet their audiences paradoxically can’t withdrawal from the scenario and also face the difficulty of becoming immersed.

Towards the end of the series, there was a light at the end of the tunnel. Recessions are supposed to be a natural part of business, and what goes down must come up. In an inclusive gesture both celebratory but cautionary, David Frankovich’s Grey Cup Party was a performance, installation and intervention staged on the day of the Grey Cup (the Super Bowl of the north). Camaraderie and sportsmanship were viewed through a queer lens, as historical victorian references and various Earl Greys were mixed. “The Grey Cup is also the name of the trophy given to the winning team of the CFL and is named for Albert Grey, the 4th Earl Grey and former Governor General of Canada. Every year, millions of Canadians watch the Grey Cup from home on their TVs. Earl Grey tea is an aromatic tea blend made with oil of bergamot. Like the Grey Cup, it is also named for an Earl Grey, but a different one: Charles Grey, the 2nd Earl Grey and former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.” Male lineage as patriarchy were subtly critiqued in this piece, while other surprises happened along the way. Four ‘dandies’ sat to watch the football game in a grey object adorned room in a Victorian hotel, while other spectators (mostly women) came for tea and the performance. The performers were consumed in watching football, and the audience was consumed with watching the watching of footballBeyond the artist’s control were the commercials aired on the CBC that day, which were frequent, gendered, and aiming at a specific clientèle that weren’t necessarily present that night. While the performance intended to subvert the dominant narrative of the Grey Cup, it did so while inadvertently indulging in class tourism; plus, only so much tea come be consumed before getting the point. As the game wore on, eventually the Dandies started to serve tea to the audience, mingling, as unclear how the narrative would end as everyone else. An upset by the Montreal Alouettes ended the performance, the football game, and the series. Like some recessions, the problems continue, slowly fading out with a murmur, leaving most people to the daily monotony as if nothing had happened.


(1) Dot Tuer. Gestures in the looking glass: performance art and the body. Mars, Tanya and Householder, Johanna. Caught In The Act: an Anthology of Performance Art by Canadian Women. Toronto: YYZ Books, 2004, Page 54.

(2) Ibid, 56.

(3) Time Magazine. ‘Goodbye to a decade from hell’ by Andy Sewer. Published November 2009.

(4) On some, Toronto and Canada have been relatively unscathed by the recession.
(5) For examples, see Spiritualism: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spiritualism

(6) Artist statement from Boehme’s website. Accessed 02/04/2010. http://people.finearts.uvic.ca/~jgboehme/

(7) See Media violence research and youth violence: Why do they conflict? Dr. Cheryl K Olson, M.P.H, S.D. Accessed 02/04/2010. http://ap.psychiatryonline.org/cgi/content/full/28/2/144

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