Friday, November 7, 2008

Day 11: Observations on The Panel and Rules of Engagement (AJP)

Andrew James Paterson

On the 2008 7a*11d festival’s final afternoon, a panel was held with the title of Terms of Engagement: Presence and the Performative. The panellists were Helsinki-based artist Annette Arlander, Paul Coulllard, and Johanna Householder. Tanya Mars was scheduled to participate in the panel live from Paris, but technology did not cooperate. Norbert Klassen also performed an “intervention” during the panel or, rather, he entertained the audience with a brief performance parallel to but not contravening the panel. (What exactly is an intervention? Does it usurp, or complement? Is it confrontational, or agreeable?)

This blog posting is predominantly my response to themes of and from the panel, rather than a summation of the panel itself. It is from my own perspective as an audience member for practically the entire 2008 7a*11d festival, a frequent audience member at other performance (or performative) events and/or exhibitions, and my own experience as an occasional performance artist. It is also a revisiting of many of the individual performances and actions hosted by this biannual festival.

The bi-annual 7a*11d Festival received many applications which, in the collective’s opinion, could be considered “performative”, but not particularly performance. “Performative” has often been a usefully vague term - it can refer to many different instances of art and/or presentation. Formation of an image can be considered performative, whether or not bodies are physically present in the process. Presentations that contain elements of other disciplines - projected film, painting, whatever- in addition to bodily presence can also be called “performative”. The term also has become a cousin of what is broadly categorized as “relational art”- art concerned with creating “social space” or engaging with a if not the community.

Relational or social or (even) community art practices have become rather commonplace in Toronto’s non-profit and even public (maybe even private) galleries. There are of course major variances within this very broad category of image-making and/or performance. There are exhibitions and performances that are as much about the social space created by the audience that is tuning in and out of the exhibition or performance, rather than that audience remaining locked into a passive relationship with what or who is on the wall or on a proscenium. There are events where an image itself is modified by its contact with an audience or participatory viewers - performances that require an active rather than passive audience. And there are relational art events that really aren’t about much more than tea and chat with a visiting artist, whose name is on the wall or the marquee and who doesn’t really do much beside encourage his or her audience to drink tea and chat.

The 7a*11 Performance Festival received numerous proposals for varying degrees of relational, social space, or community arts claiming to be performances, and decided that such work was already none too difficult to find and therefore 7a*11d did not need to programme any more of it. This decision is based on different sense of engagement with the work 7a*11d has chosen to programme - different engagements both from the performers or artists and also from the audiences. Although 7a*11d this year did programme pieces that were more of a static/sculptural nature than of body-generated actions and demonstrations, those sculptural pieces still involved the artists' own bodies either pushing or being pushed to their limits. There was one piece - Don Simmons’ Picked you out of my Pocket and Death was the Door Prize - in which the titular performer was in fact the director and/or sound mixer. But this performance also utilized three daredevil cyclists who most certainly did place their bodies at risk.

This body was the connective throughout the festival. This was a performance festival for a performance audience - one willing to make commitments parallel to those of the performers. These commitments were of time, stamina, intensity, and much more.

I have over the years witnessed performances also witnessed by audience members rooted in other disciplines - theatre, conceptual art, film/video, music, whatever. I once had a conversation with a theatre-artist about a particular performance that was in fact rather theatrical, but static - a tableau I believe. The performance was not in a theatre or gallery - it was in a specific but public location. The theatre artist wished that the performance artists had acknowledged the audience more. I thought that was a really daft criticism, since the performers had in fact made their tableau highly visible at a distance calculated to heighten their visibility to not only an attending audience but also to pedestrians and other members of “the public”. Surely those artists were honouring the appropriate rules of engagement? During the 2008 7a*11d festival, the overwhelming majority of artists engaged with their audience(s) in that they defined space, established their intentions, and maintained attention via their bodies and/or gestures.

Time, or investment in time, is central to so much performance art for both the performers and their audiences. Time is, if not an exact synonym, surely a cousin of duration. Some of the 7a*11d performances (John G. Boehme, Angelika Fojtuch, others) utilized either the entire gallery space or the entire audience and thus created quite social spaces. One could watch in admiration or amusement as Fojtuch and her bandaged/bondaged captive (or husband) slowly moved through the crowd throughout the gallery. One could chat and gossip with neighbours as Boehme one-by-one carried the entire audience on his shoulders in Belonging Networks: a social utilities performance. It became clear that such was Boehme’s intention, although not final intention. By contrast, other performances engaged by means of performer focus and intensity. Small gestures, if amplified, can become big gestures - when the performer(s) make visual, sculptural, emotional, and other forms of contact or connection or engagement.

I did feel occasionally as an audience member that I was unable to engage with a few of the performances to the degree that I would have liked to. seen unseen, by Natasha Bailey and Danielle Williams, was presented in the Xpace window concurrently or parallel to Sini Haapalinna’s Kaleidoscopopspectacal (live Cinematic Trans Flux), which I found worthy of complete attention. However, the endless sound of the door to the street creaking as people went in and outside to take in the window performance prevented a complete engagement with the indoor performance. On the final performance evening, I would have liked the option of alternating between Annette Arlander’s Wind Swept- variation upstairs and Marilyn Arsem’s rather Gothic durational/installation in the basement. Both of these visually effective pieces placed the performers' bodies in relation to a projected landscape and a rather cinematic environment respectively. But I didn’t feel that I had the option of moving back and forth without creating commotion and disturbing the calmness crucial to Arlander’s presentation.

In conversation with another audience member, it was suggested that Warren Arcan’s Nosferanook was too short or abrupt. I completely disagree. Arcan made wonderful use of the opportunities provided by such a classically mouldy basement. He entered as an Owl - in a fantastic costume that he had designed in tandem with his Creative Residency. He made it clear to where in the space he was heading to, and then completed his intention by chopping at the wall (a perfectly durable wall). It took a while for it to become apparent that there wasn’t another act as part of Arcan’s act - that he was going to continue chopping until the final audience member moved elsewhere or clued in. Nosferanook was a relatively brief performance, and highly effective in its brevity. It was an equation, a metaphor, a pair of symbolic gestures. Owls are wise but they lack olfactory facilities, so they persist in knocking at walls that will not fall down and reveal their hidden treasures. Arcan, like any good creative resident, engaged with his contract, his environment, and his brain, and arrived at a clear and effective performance.

It is probably self-revealing that I spent as much time regarding the beautiful oscillating images of Nicola Frangione’s Voice in Movement as I did watching the performer. Admittedly, I myself am more committed to making media-art than I am to live performance, but it was also the novelty of having something to focus on beside the performer’s body and its by-products that I found refreshing. Another festival participant and observer thought that the gorgeous black and white images detracted from Frangione’s performance, and the performer’s body language was certainly intricate enough to warrant sole focus or engagement.

On Friday October 24th, I ate a roti at a wonderful little restaurant near the Toronto Free Gallery on Bloor near Lansdowne. Across the street from Vena’s Roti, the venerable Toronto artist-run gallery Mercer Union has just opened its new space. I decided that, since I was in the neighbourhood, I had time for a quick visit to an art opening - intending to return later and spend some time with the art. I of course recognized many artists and colleagues from the visual art “community", and explained that I was in and out quickly because I was working as a blogger for 7a*11d. That was of some interest, but at that moment Mercer Union and its audience seemed like another world. My contract with performance art seemed to involve a different mode of commitment - not only temporal but physical. So I headed over to Xpace, and engaged with my own engagement. This was an engagement involving commitment, stamina, and duration, and also alertness. Such was the nature of the contract.

Photo of panel participants and Norbert Klassen by Henry Chan

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Day 11: Panel as Performance (EW)

Sunday November 2, 2008

The final day of the festival was wrapped up with a panel discussing terms of engagement: how does one create performance art, and what is the difference between performance art and performative gestures?

The panelists consisted of a series of performers-and-professors: moderator Johanna Householder, Helsinki artist Annette Arlander, festival-organizer Paul Couillard, and Governor General Award-winner Tanya Mars. Unfortunately, Tanya's Skype connection was buggy and we were unable to receive her input into the panel.

The discussion began with broaching terms of engagement: not only what terms we can (and should) use to describe engagement, but also on what terms engagement becomes necessary in the performative world. Annette was invited to provide the opening contexts for the audience, in which she brought up a key facet of defining performance art (versus the performative gesture): in performance art, the distinction between community art (art made for others, with the intention of being seen by others) with body/individual art (art made as a process for the performer) is often blurred. For while an audience is not intrinsically necessary for performance art to be created, or for it to possess meaning (the theatre was presented as an example of this need), neither is performance art an exercise for the artist alone, where the audience can be coincidental (or non-existant) with little ill-effect (visual art galleries, for example).

To add to this idea, Annette introduced us to the three cornerstones of spectacle: liminality, contingency, ephemerality. These three qualities of performance are ones we can use to describe liveness and how liveness factors into the blurred-boundary that performance art creates. Strategies of harnessing this include: engaging with the site in specific ways that derive their meaning from the environment itself, the encouragement of audience members as active participants, interactivity, generative technology (technology that is flexible and not static -- capable of facilitating creation and improvisation), performing open-ended tasks that do not close off potential resolutions, and incorporating accidental audiences, or audience members who do not know that a performance is going on. The idea of audiences as participants raised some questions that we should ask of any performance when trying to understand its liveness: how much of the performance is created in front of an audience, how much with the audience, and how much by the audience?

Annette then emphasized two conflicting halves of performance, and art in general (taken from a Finnish documentary filmmaker whose name I didn't catch): the problem of encountering reality and the strategizing of representation. How much of a performance is real ("live") and how much is a representation of reality? (For example, wearing ice skates and a jersey in order to play hockey is a much different idea than wearing ice skates and a jersey in order to presenting oneself as a hockey player to an observing audience.) This dualism plays out most clearly in the cinematic idea of verisimilitude, that tangles itself up when something that is staged seems to be more realistic than something that is real. (Take, for example, laughtrack artists who rarely use a live audience's laughter unmodified, as television audiences feel, ironically, that the unmodified laughter is fake.)

This split between mediated and unmediated is particularly salient when discussing the use of documentation, as evidenced by our d2d screening night.
Divisions hover around the use of documentation (archival versus intentional) and the liveness of the art audience within the video -- if they, too, are part of the performance, then what marks the audience watching the audience watching the performance?

We were then told an anecdote about how performance artists don't go see video work and how video artists don't go see performance work -- a fact that, Householder points out, is tied to how performance art demands a commitment of time from its audience, as well as a commitment, period. The level of engagement required to watch a piece of performance art is vastly different than that required to walk through an art gallery, to watch a movie or even to watch a play.

Paul went on to speak about the types of performances that they chose to keep out of this year's festival. Stressing that performativity does not equal performance, he brought up two examples of performative gestures that he felt were not performance art: Austin's performative utterance and Butler's performative identity. Austin's theory posits that an act of language that changes reality is actually a performance -- the words "I do" change one's status from single to married; a jury's announcement of "guilty" changes a person into a criminal. And Butler states the daily existence of people, in our myriad of social groups and social identities, is performance. The representation of self through things like clothing, possessions, hobbies, etc -- especially in relation to identity politics -- becomes a daily performance that relies on being seen to be valuable. Both of these kinds of performative acts lack what Paul described as 'presence': the essential interaction, the shared element between audience and performer, that he deemed necessary for the festival.

And here, the panel negotiated a key point: If these gestures aren't performance art, then what is? Paul responded with "that which makes form." Like Alan Kaprow's happenings that were no longer a representation of time and space, but rather played with time and space, Paul explained how he as a performance artist is no longer satisfied with being a representation. He described his growing discomfort with creating performances where he is the image/representation and the audience is merely watching, even if they are engaged. He mentioned how the wall of doing something alone, of being the image separate from the audience, is at least negated when doing a performance with someone else. At least then if the audience isn't actively involved, he is at least performing with intention, to and for someone who is right there in the moment with him.

Throughout this portion of the panel, Norbert Klassen performed the final performance of the festival. With slow deliberate movements he sat in a chair and balanced a series of things on his head. Odd, everyday and bizarre things ranging from a red (devil) plastic duck, to an orange pumpkin, a jade vase, and a white candelabra with white candles which he, of course, lit. Each item had a very strong sense of colour, and his facial expression was perfectly calm as he carefully lifted each item up and down.

Paul went on to create a distinction between performance art and theatre that I understood as the hallmark of the performances in this year's festival. He described the actor's craft as one asking the audience to "look at me" -- look at my choices, my characterization, look at my skill, look at how well I am being someone else. To this he contrasted the craft of the performance artist, which possesses a shyness, an embarrassment -- look not at me, but at what I am doing, look at my actions and the materials around me, look at how my actions are affecting my environment. The performance artist is doing an act for what is created rather than doing it specifically for an audience (which will be brought up again later, regarding performances with no audiences). In this sense, performance art is concerned with what is rather than with representing what is, and the materials become the source of the piece in comparison to the actor being the source of the piece.

A question from the audience challenged Paul: things like the happenings, and Jerzy Grotowski's theatre laboratories were challenging the idea of mere representation. The example was used of not being Medea as a character, but finding the Medea within the self.

Annette pushed the conversation into a different direction. The focus on presence and live interaction moves towards demarcating theatre in opposition to performance art. What if we were not to start with the idea of presence? If presence is common to both theatre and performance art, what defines performance art? Paul defined this difference by stating that performance art's role is to question whatever needs to be questioned at the time. It incorporates into its very structure change, flux and virtuousity.

Annette responded with an interesting question. In performance art it is often the artist who is performing, but what happens when we bring up the possiblity of "outsourcing authenticity"? Returning, again, to the theatre-versus-performance art division as a source of definition, Annette emphasized how theatre maintains a large division of labour between creator, performer and audience, whereas those boundaries are not as prevalent in performance art. (Which, as a theatre practitioner working in devised theatre, I feel compelled to say is a little bit of an old-fashioned point of view. But that's a spiel for another day.)

At this point the panel invited Marilyn Arsem for insight into her conceptual piece performed in the XBASE on Saturday night, and how she would feel if another were to perform her piece on her behalf. She responded that she views the performer's body as a tool for the audience, to stimulate a continued source of engagement with the site. Recalling Paul's discussion about the materials versus the act, Marilyn's point of view creates the actor as a material of the site. As such, using "hired help" would not feel the same, since when a performer recreates another's ideas, they can only portray those intentions they have been told about. As well, outside performers can feel as if they do not have permission to be as improvisational or relational as a piece would require if it is someone else's piece.

Annette presented the other half of the equation -- to think of performance as something not necessarily for an audience is liberating, a fact to which Johanna soundly agreed. A performance without an audience is free to examine and present an action for a reason other than how it affects someone else. Performing then presents an action with a direct meaning that cannot be misinterpretted. Returning to Paul's earlier sentiments of what types of performance he wanted in the festival, Annette emphasized the difference between artwork and festival artwork. After all, in a public festival meant to draw audiences, why go to the trouble of setting up a performance that the artist doesn't allow anyone to see?

The nature of festival art became even broader as Paul reminded us that art cannot be made for a single community alone, even if that is the intention of the artist. (Here Johanna challenged his use of the term "communities"; they settled on "audiences".) Even festival art, created with the intention to reach the audiences that attend the festival (ie other artists, press, art supporters), possesses the potential to invoke simultaneous communities. Paul presented the Chaw Ei Thein's piece which resonated with the Burmese community, drawing in a crowd that wouldn't normally experience this type of festival.

Somewhere in all this discussion, a conclusion was created. The final question that must be asked, I suppose, is whether this very panel constitutes as performance, especially in potentiality, since we missed Tanya Mars Skyping in (with the promise of a Marie Antoinette wig).


Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Creative Resident Profile: Gustavo Alvarez "Musgus" (AJP)

Photos of Gustavo Alvarez by Henry Chan.

Andrew James Paterson

Mexico City born (and now Chihuahua-based) artist Gustavo Alvarez (also known by his alter-ego Musgus) was also a Creative Resident for the 2008 7a*11d Festival. In conjunction with his residency, Gustavo presented a series of four public realm performances and one gallery performance - on the festival’s final night which was also the Mexican Day of the Dead.

Alvarez began performing in 2000, and immediately began creating performances in urban areas - in the streets, on public transit, and more. Alvarez states that he prefers performing in the more public realm - that he is stimulated by contact with individuals and groups outside art institutions and the museums. He does enjoy interacting with people in social spaces that can exist inside galleries and even museums, but he prefers encountering unexpected spectators or ‘accidental audiences’. This is also an extension of the artist’s history of teaching workshops in performance art to people generally outside artistic “communities” - blind people, people dealing with mental hospitals and/or mental health issues, people living with HIV/AIDS, and others. Alvarez prefers the unexpected and the provocative - his is not a form of public art that is all about subtle immersion in the everyday or the public realm. His is a not a what’s wrong with this picture aesthetic. Alvarez or Musgus likes to shatter false silences, and conversely he likes to stop not only traffic but also mindless chattering and its exchanges.

“Musgus” is the performer’s alter ego. I asked Gustavo about the name, and he enigmatically suggested I should think of “moss” and also “juice”. Moss is somewhat synonymous with lichen, which tend to grow on rocks and other natural surfaces. Lichen are not bacteria - they are not unhealthy and are therefore life forces. Moss may popularly be considered to be baggage - the word may refer to things unnecessary (and to aging). Moss is also not unlike memory -it comes and goes and it also grows. It is akin to memory in that it is difficult if not impossible for humans or animals to banish or eliminate. Moss is a survivor, and juice is energy. ”Musgus”- Gustavo Alvarez wears that name and logo on his signature yellow jump or boiler suit.

In August 2008, Gustavo Alvarez concluded a series of workshops in there mountain range of Chihuahua with the indigenous Tarahumana. These workshops took place over a two-year period. During his Creative Residency at 7a*11d, Alvarez decided to undertake a series of performances based on the Tarahumana concept of Chabochi. Chabochi references the mestizo - a different thing or The Other.

Gustavo plays with the double-edged or two-sidedness of Chabochi. Chabochi can be presented as being both romantic with its otherness, its perceived threats to normality and to order. But Chabochi is also a derogatory label for an outsider, a foreigner, a virus. Who is Chabochi?

In tandem with his Toronto residency, Gustavo Alvarez “Musgus” presented four performances or actions in “public spaces” and one culminating presentation at Xpace.
The first public performance made use of bus shelters and newspaper boxes and gateways into parks, before moving onto the street and even the centre of a major intersection. This first public performance was called Chabochi Memories, and its trajectory involved the artist decorating bus shelters and newspaper boxes and sidewalks and street themselves with paraphernalia referring to memory - photographs and souvenirs and toys. Musgus would stop at ideal locations and create small altars or shrines. He would break silence by asking where are the memories. Pedestrians were curious but hardly threatened or alarmed. Queen West - even the sections without an abundance of art galleries - is a neighbourhood in which sidewalk and graffiti artists are not exactly unusual. Considering Musgus’ obvious costume, his masks and personae accessories, this was clearly a performance - the performer made no effort to blend into the crowd as that is not his methodology. It wasn’t until Gustavo moved his shrines or assemblages onto the street that situations began to tense. First he usurped a street corner at which there was a bus top, and then he concluded Chabochi Memories by occupying the centre of the street car tracks at Queen and Bathurst, a busy and often volatile intersection. A young couple wondered what the man on the street car tracks was doing. I explained that it was performance art, and I was personally grateful for the one careful street car driver who slowed down and observed that Gustavo knew perfectly well what he was doing.

The second and third public performances - Chabochi in a Dangerous World and Chabochi for the Dead - both took place on the property of the Toronto transit Commission. The first of these two cations was on a Queen West streetcar. Weering a green Mexican wrestling hat, and carrying a supply of bells and paraphernalia, Musgus led a 7a*11d contingent onto the street car and handed out bells. He ran up and down the street car and bellowed out lightning words such as Terrorist, Poverty, Bad Government, Corruption. These aberrations exist, and what do passengers think about that? He repeated his actions and proclamations. Passengers were beginning to become confused. A man accompanying a small child was upset that the performance had upset that child. Musgus changed his tone, not particularly in response to anxious passengers. He stated that there is exists hope, and then led the 7a*11d contingent off of the bus.

The Chabochi for the Dead performance was enacted primarily in the Museum subway station, with its kitsch totems and decorations - its “public art” proclaiming that we are indeed approaching the one and only Museum. This performance was much more elongated ritual than the streetcar action. Musgus ate from a loaf of bread characterized by a pink glacial face image-pattern. He ate like a dog, holding the food with his hands and eating with his mouth from both left and right. . He wore his signature yellow boiler-suit with no head gear today.

In the Museum station, he placed the by now well-eaten head of bread onto the floor, knelt as if praying before it, and continued eating. Crumbs were by now accumulating in considerable quantity. The artist began hanging black and orange plastic shields with shaped holes (some faces) around one of the station’s altars or museum-referent poles. The black and orange shields or flags appeared to have been purchased in some cheap Halloween-supplies store. Halloween or Sam Hain - Days of the Dead. The artist reached into his supplies-bag and retrieved first one small clay head sculpture, and then another. He placed the two heads on a black blanket, and retrieved twelve candles, which he spread about in the shape of a corpus. He scattered crumbs in order to provide flesh. He addressed the air and thus the commuters:

“For my dead. For your dead. For our dead”.

Many of the passengers coming and going the busy station were at least pausing, either fascinated or disturbed. One young couple asked me if the man was okay. I assured this couple that the performer was quite okay. Musgus regarded his altar - his remains of bodies - with respectful silence, and then packed up his utensils and led his acolytes onto the southbound train. The altar or installation remained, but it obviously would not remain for long. Passengers would hopefully help themselves to souvenirs or mementoes, rather than doing public space a favour and tossing the art into the waste containers.

On the following afternoon, Musgus had intended to perform his fourth outdoor action - titled Chabochi vs. the Global Market. His intended location was Dundas Square, which is an awkward “public” space hopelessly compromised and cluttered by corporate logos and non-stop advertising. Gustavo intended to make use of Dundas Square’s fountain, but alas the fountain was not running. Was this simply because the last day of October was the last day of the fountain, or were authorities worried about Halloween pranksters? Whatever. City Hall Square offered a possible alternative site, but also no fountain. There was a fountain in the privately-owned Eaton Centre, but the illegality of an action involving such a fountain would have averted an action intended to take place over a longer duration. So the fourth action was postponed until the next afternoon, and relocated to the street outside the Toronto Free Gallery on Bloor near Lansdowne.
Prior to the performance’s announcement, Gustavo Alvarez Lugo has already made a petit installation on the sidewalk, with a small object-holder of sorts, two toy bubble-blowers, and a small but ominous snake figure. The performance artist was wearing his trademark MUSGUS yellow boiler-suit, but today he was favouring a blue wrestling hat. After checking his sidewalk set-up, Gustavo began running on the sidewalk, jumping over his installation. He did this back and forth for a while, eventually for shorter distances until he stopped. Pedestrians walked around the performance and the sidewalk installation. Many stopped and watched. He shouted out SHOKWAME HAS COME. Shokwame is an evil man, a witch, a questionable magician.

He retrieved a black string and wrapped it around an audience member’s lower left leg. He found other semi-consenting observers at four corners from each other and tied them all to his central installation. The Shokwame has come. He caresses his blue wrestling-helmet, then removes it and begins to cut it open along the seams. He now has a mask with eyes, nose, and mouth. He adds it to the street-sculpture. Now he lies down, blows a few tentative bubbles, again announces that The Shokwame has come, and then concludes the performance. A young bystander/observer asked if he can have the mask. Gustavo declines the request, but informs the boy that he has other masks. This is November 1st, the Mexican day of the Dead.

This fourth performance - Chabochi vs. Shokwame - was much lighter in tone than its predecessors. Perhaps it was the time and the neighbourhood? Bloor and Lansdowne is a changing neighbourhood, host to various communities and now becoming a zone with at least a couple of high-profile art galleries. And the artist’s fifth and final performance during the 7a*11d festival was inside a gallery - at Xpace on the final evening. During the changeover from the evening’s previous performance/installation, Gustavo had assembled one of his trademark altar- installations on the floor. He entered banging a drum on its side with a mallet-stick, and he wore a facial mask on the back of his head. He moves toward audience members while banging the drum. Then he walked up to the west gallery wall furthest from the street and writes CHABOCHI on that wall.

Gustavo lit the contents of a cup which was part of his little shrine or altar, and used paper to increase the burning. He picked up the cup and transported it over to the wall under his writing, allowed the fire to burn itself out, and then asked the audience “Who is Chabochi?” He wanted a volunteer - he wanted someone else to declare themselves an other or an outsider. He procured willing participants from the audience. Those who admitted or declared themselves CHABOCHI were handed plastic flag-papers similar to the ones Gustavo had used in his Museum Subway Station installation, and instructed to tape them to the gallery wall and write their names on the wall at the top of the papers. When all the volunteers had done so, Gustavo then inverted the dynamics - the balance of his equation. He asserted that there is no Chabochi, that there should be no more Chabochis, and that there was one world. Then he said thank you, and the performance and the performances of the 2008 7a*11d festival were now history. The Day of the Dead had been observed, and now the Day of the Dead had drawn to its conclusion.

Gustavo Alvarez Musgus has indeed cut a swatch throughout parts of Toronto. It might well have been interesting for him to have undertaken a public action in a part of the city where performance art is not relatively recognizable; a neighbourhood in which his simultaneous celebration and parody of cult-leaders and their followers might well have prompted even more confusion if not hostility. But he is a very effective public performer, one who skilfully plays with boundaries between what is private and what is public - tensions between what should remain private and what is perfectly appropriate to vent in a public realm. Throughout the 7a*11d festival, Musgus succeeded in creating what Hakim Bey refers to as Temporary Autonomous Zones, in which conventional rules of exchange and etiquette are at least problematized if not completely abolished.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Creative Resident Profile: Robin Poitras (AJP)

Andrew James Paterson

Regina-based artist Robin Poitras is another of the 2008 Festival’s Seven Creative Residents, who have been invited to develop and create performance works and/or actions specific to either of the 7a*11d’s two host galleries or to the public spaces of Toronto. Poitras’ body of work encompasses dance, theatre, and visual art. These labels or categorizations become blurry and arguably redundant, as it all culminates in performance.

Poitras’ work or practice has been characterized by ritual and processions, by specific focus on materials that the artist feels have multi-faceted histories, reverberations, and associations. She is fascinated by mythologies and by dreams; and she has an ability to create powerful single images that can permit multiple suggestions and/or interpretations.
Light, colour, movement, rhythm, and also cinematography are key elements of her considerable body of work and ongoing practice. Poitras combines a dancer’s discipline with a visual artist’s belief in the power and beauty of images.

In 1986 Poitras founded New Dance Horizons, of which she continues to be the Artistic Director. Being both a dancer/choreographer/performer herself and also a director, she has fruitfully collaborated with a wide range of visual artists, choreographers, musicians, actors, and other artists. In 2000, Robin Poitras organized a three-day dance festival called Stream of Dance, which showcased a blend of styles and disciplines including ballet and powwow dancing. Robin Poitras has never been one to shy away from blending different disciplines and also different audiences.

Poitras is not a subscriber to Western beliefs in superiority of mind over body. She subjects her body to endurance tests of her physical limitations. She transcends the physical body while simultaneously moulding it, or sculpting it. She is a believer in thinking as a bodily act and not as a detached egghead ivory tower form of gamesmanship. She is unafraid to explore terrain dismissed by many women (as well as men) as being essentialist or biologically-determinist, although she is too open to chance in order to be pinned down by such labels.

A significant multidisciplinary and community-based work by Robin Poutras is The Pelican Project. This processional performance is heavily influenced by Japanese culture - it is based on a series of five Dragon Procession performances designed for children. These performances take place annually at festivals such as Lanterns on the Lake in Regina. It consistently involves workshops for its participants and collaborators, from which have evolved performances utilizing pelican “prosthetics” such as beaks and wooden shoes, and pleated paper costumes as well as paper lanterns. A march or procession occurs at Wascana Park, and the wooden feet create strong memorable rhythms. Sound generated by movement is a commonplace of Poitras’ works.

The Pelican Project was echoed by an outdoor performance that Poitras presented on a lovely pre-Halloween afternoon in downtown Toronto’s financial district. Poitras formed a trio with two other female artists - Brenda Cleniuk and Leanne Lloyd (both from Regina). Dressed in identical black outfits and wearing comfortable red shoes, they held umbrellas over their heads in unusually sunny weather and fastened belts hosting bells around each leg. The three-piece orchestra would sit in wooden stools in different site-specific arrangements and shake their bodies enough so that the bells would ring harmoniously. The ringing was particularly sonorous at the performance’s first location - in front of the Design Exchange which had originally been the stock exchange. The ringing commenced at noon - high noon. Ringing bells of course carry many associations -meeting time, feeding time, mess time as it is called in the military. The stock market’s daily opening is announced by ringing bells, as is its daily closing. The stock market has of course been oscillating quite wildly in recent times - the stock market has been downright Fluxist.

The closer the performers could sit to each other, the more harmonious the bells. In front of the Design Exchange they were in one of my favourite keys - that of “D”, and their movements were almost perfectly synchronized. When the performers moved across the street to a deserted fountain area, they had to sit further apart and intensity was lost. But they could sense this and so they picked up the slack, enough to attract the attention of a Security Guard who requested that they relocate. So they moved up another level, and then walked through them lobby of a large CIBC bank. Were they disturbing the peace? (On an earlier day this week, another 7a*11d artist - Sakiko Yamaoka - did lead a sleep-in in various banks including this one.) No, but people did stare. Perhaps the three women belonged to some religious cult? Or were they nuns of a sort? They were silent, except for their ringing. Poitras and her co-performers had undertaken a vow of verbal silence in the heart of the financial district, a district in which constant chatter is a given. Many denizens of that district stopped what they were doing for a moment and pondered the three identically-dressed women.

In 2000, Poitras commenced a body of work titled Invisible Ceremonies, works combining performance, dance, spoken word, and ritual. Many of these works, such as Ursa Major, attempt to forge connections between conscious and unconscious by deploying recognizable shapes and outlines Or perhaps preconscious is a better word here - animistic, instinctual, and elemental. Poitras at least flirts with occult elements. Poitras
“plays with symbols and the fairytale as part of a multi-pull deck of historical, social, scientific, and poetic thoughts and images…to trace some of the origins and mythological inheritance that perceives the way women are viewed”. (from the artist’s notebook, 2003. Quoted in Brenda Cleniuk, Robin Poitras, pub. Caught in the Act; an anthology of performance art by Canadian women, eds. Tanya Mars and Johanna Householder, YYZ Books, 2004, page 372)

Poitras uses a stage or playing area as an installation space, a space for gathering and arranging materials and referencing art, science, and nature. She does not see these fields as separate disciplines but rather as being complexly interconnected or co-dependent. Poitras has particularly referenced non-white Western cultures (particularly Japanese and First Nations), and their various public rituals. Materials and fertility are at the foundation of many if not most of Poitras’ works, often in relation to site-specific locations and to landscape. An important work is Memez Ovum, drawing on stories and mythologies about Prairie winters and source ideas such as frozen embryos, the moon, Snow White. And cryogenics. The hyper-rationalist worlds of science are never a violation of nature but an organic or bodily extension. Thinking and deducting and experimenting are all body acts. Memez Ovum also drew on the works of visual artists who have made significant amounts of work examining the colour white, not as a default base or non-colour but as a vividly expressive and idiosyncratic colour, with as many shades and sub-shades as the primary and secondary colours. White of course is the colour of snow, and Poitras in her notes describes Memex Ovum as “an ode to winter picnics.” It is dedicated to her mother, who initiated her daughter into winter picnics and transmitted a love of snow and fairytales and natural magic.

The belief that crucial life-materials come from the body rather than being simply ingested into or superimposed onto the body is central to the performance that Robin Poitras presented at Xpace Gallery for 7a*11d on October 30th, 2008. Her material of choice was honey. When I asked the artist why honey, she regarded me patiently and informed me that she collected bees as a child. Bees may seem to be a seasonal nuisance, as far as most people are concerned. However, bees make honey and bees are endangered. Honey is a first (if not the first) food, a major source of fertility, and a timeless remedy for illnesses and immune systems. A body devoid of honey is a body in trouble.

. The 7a*11d festival catalogue lists Poitras as presenting untitled: a work that draws on past works. This title referred to the flexibility granted to the Seven Creative Residents by the festival - a trust that they are capable of arriving at something substantial during their residency, a presentation(s) based on their interactions with both the performance site and their reactions to their working environments. But this performance was so much more than that.

As the audience re-entered the gallery from the epical preceding performance, Poitras was on a ladder applying a paint-roller to a white wall. What was on the roller was not paint but honey. Sweet and very sticky honey. She was painting the letter “X”. In the centre of the gallery she had a bucket and a pair of stilts. Very simple - minimal and particular materials and/or supports.

She first rubbed skin against the X she had painted onto the wall, making sure that the honey was appropriately sticky. Then she climbed down from the ladder, sat in the middle of the floor, raised the bucket and poured honey all over herself. The honey ran down her entire body and formed a major puddle on the floor. The honey not only dripped from but soaked right into her skin. She remained still and never looked at the X that she had “painted” on the wall to her left. She slowly rose and mounted the stilts. She moved backwards through the puddle of honey and very slowly but steadily around the playing area she had defined, maintaining the necessarily perfect balance. She stopped in the centre by the puddle of honey and slowly climbed down from the stilts. She lay the stilts down, and walked slowly toward the wall to her right. Robin Poitras pressed a hand against this wall, and held it there. Then she withdrew the hand, revealing one very clear fingerprint. Then she exited. Her timing was perfect, as was her concentration. This was not a performance that could have lasted forever and ever, with an arbitrary point of conclusion. This was a performance that moved from point to point, or station to station. There was no dead space in Poitras’ performance, no unfocused moments in which she made decisions concerning what to do next. These directions were in her head and in her entire body. This was a performance that a purpose to accomplish and that purpose was accomplished.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Creative Resident Profile: Glenn Lewis (EW)

Glenn Lewis: An Assembly of Artifacts
November 1 2008

After the audience is finished processing the events of Chaw Ei Thein's performance in the Toronto Free Gallery, we turn our attention to the other half of the room which is dominated by a large structure made out of lattice work and wood. A giant square base morphs into an octagonal second layer, which (once the performance has started) will be dominated at its top by a skeletal dome.

Glenn Lewis, renowned both as an artist in a variety of forms and as an environmentalist, has weathered many artistic movements over his many years in the performance art world, though he muses that he does not belong to a specific group or movement any more. While he does not perform very often any more, having concentrated his efforts on his gardens where he breeds lilies, he tells me that the structure he has created recalls themes in his life involving to shapes, circles and knots working in on himself. This theme encompasses performances ranging from his very first to the hexagonal house he has built in British Columbia.

Having started his artistic endeavours in visual art and ceramics, he cites his interest in performance stemming from a workshop led by Deborah Hay that he attended while part of the intermedia movement: a movement concerned with crossing established boundaries by combining different media, forms and sources of inspiration (dream, movement, material) to create poetic combinations in art. At this workshop, he created his first performance in which he opened up an umbrella full of flour and raked the flour into swirls and shapes (in a fashion similar to Japanese rock gardens) in time to a radio playing in his pocket.

In the performance we see today, Lewis, clad in his green jumpsuit and orange hat, begins by constructing a tower in the centre of the structure out of various found objects (including an old stereo system, a CD rack and an impromptu bird cage), at the top of which sits a purple and yellow stuffed bird. From the top of the cage sprouts eight grey foam tubes, which Lewis balances on nails to create the domed ceiling of the sanctuary. A CD of Abyssinian music plays in the background as the two videos of the walking/sweeping portion of this performance are displayed side by side on the wall, and we watch the dual Lewises as they progress along the sidewalks of Toronto.

In my interview with Lewis about his piece, I mentioned that I felt that he went out of his way to create an atmosphere of help and positivity in these walks, emphasized by his jumpsuit reading 'HOPE engineering' and his random acts of kindness. I was curious if he felt that his art stemmed from a desire to create positive social relations. His answer was yes, but not necessarily in a conscious way; in fact, no more deliberately than his every day life. About the potential for performance art, and art in general, to change society for the better, he would like to think this is possible, but added that it's probably not a good idea for artists to be in any sort of political power. He does hope, again in an offhand kind of way, that his performance would provide the audience with an awareness of the sheer mass of the commodity life we lead and all the garbage we produce on a daily basis. But, he emphasized, that preaching is not at all the intention of the piece -- the piece is more like a collage, incorporating aspects of the street with aspects of the festival's ideals of art and performance.

And indeed, as he strews bags of garbage around the structure, his performance is much more light-hearted and fun-loving than my questions about social change. He almost revels in the garbage as he shuffles in circles inside the structure, clearing a path. It is the vision of the sanctuary in Evelyn Waugh's short story that he wants to recreate, especially its unexpected nature, the masses of junk and the feeling of timelessness, of motion stopped. The structure does set a striking image with the homeliness of the lattice walls combined with the black metal of the central tower and the piles of trash. We aren't quite sure how to processes this combination of images, as is evidenced in some audiences members' reluctance to join Lewis inside the structure for his circle dance (although this is probably also people's reluctance to get their shoes dirty). But, after gathering up those brave audience members he can, they dance together with him around the central tower, kicking up the garbage as they go first in one direction and then the other.

Overall, Lewis stated earlier to me that if anything, he wanted to give the audience an experience, something that they wouldn't normally do -- like walking through a very odd sand. A sand constructed at the crossroads of daily life and history, between discarding and reclaiming. He wanted to make a hidden experience, and I believe that the most important hidden part of this experience is how celebratory of life it is, despite the potential to read the piece as a criticism of modern society. Lewis is not someone who disparages or destroys, but someone who supports people and life through his art.


Day 10: Saturday November 1 (AJP)

Photo of Chaw Ei Thein by Henry Chan (Above).
Photo of garbage from Glenn Lewis' Performance (Below) by Henry Chan.

Andrew James Paterson

I begin the longest day of the 7a*11d Performance Art Festival - the Day of the Dead - out at the Toronto Free Gallery on Bloor just east of Lansdowne. I enter the Free Gallery for the fist time since last Tuesday, and Chaw Ei Thein’s mural on the west wall has nearly tripled in both scale and detail. She has left a space slightly past the mural’s centre - a space for what I wonder as I watch the artist print out a text at the top of the mural:

“In this dark and closed space = suffering = getting my body = my body + spirit + possibilities for…..reality? = freedom from Fear = Performance artist = …+…=…+…=…+…= Quiet River”.

An audience begins to fill the gallery. This audience is a mixture of 7a*11d staff and guests and people from the neighbourhood, many of whom are of Burmese origin. The audience is directed to the back room of the gallery, where eight lit candles surround a black cardboard box. People cease chattering among themselves in this back room -the box bears more than a slight resemblance to a coffin or perhaps to something gothic. There is an atmosphere of reverence as well as one of dread. At first I think there might be a light source inside the box, but then I realize that the illusion is courtesy of the lit candles.

The audience is still for an extended duration (except for those flashing and documenting etcetera), and so is the box. Then the performer inside the box begins to push leaflets of paper through holes in the south side of the box. This is primarily visible to spectators on that side of the box, and this process goes on for several minutes at least. Chaw now shifts to the east side of the box, and soon audience members begin to pick up the papers and read or look at them. I wonder about the etiquette of this curiosity, yet this section of the performance could be read as referring to methods of smuggling information out of a totalitarian state, or any state without free press and with maximum security/surveillance. After several minutes of this process Chaw began to pish her way through and out of the box and onto the floor. Festival organizers moved the lit candles away as she crawled out of the box and onto the floor, completely covered in a black cloth garment which made vision at best minimal.

Chaw Ei Thein crawled through the front gallery space toward her mural on the west wall. At the foot of the mural, there were several small paint bottles. Chaw dipped her right hand (covered by the cloth or cloak) into the black paint and wrote the letter B in roughly the centre of the white space on her canvas. She found spaces for the letters U, R, M, and A; and then for the words WHAT and NEXT. After she finished this action, some people thought it was the conclusion of the performance and tentatively began clapping. I don’t think this was out of fatigue or certainly nor boredom; it was acknowledgment of ma major achievement. But there was more to Chaw Ei Thein’s performance. She inched her way out from underneath the black garment, slowly donned a Burmese dress and a red scarf, and then indicated the end of her performance. She received richly deserved applause.

The afternoon’s performance was by Vancouver-based Glenn Lewis, another of the Creative Residents. Two projected documentations of Lewis wearing his green worker’s suit and picking up debris from Toronto’s streets and sidewalks played on the east wall of the main gallery. Lewis set himself up in his Abyssinian gazebo, with its wooden lattice, and began assembling a sculptural object composed of objects he had found, kept, and prioritized. A generic crate served as a base or foundation, a CD and radio set was then placed diagonally on top of the base, a strange-looking ladder came next, and then a birdcage at the top of some eight stringy arms (but with some weird toy with a big open mouth in the cage). An octopus of course came to mind - or some weird monster with tentacles. Lewis then proceeded to scatter five clear bags full of debris in each corner and then in the centre of the gazebo.

Photos of Glenn Lewis by Henry Chan:

After clearing a circular pathway, Lewis danced a Ring around the Rosie and then found audience members to join in the celebration. He had seven inside the gazebo going round and round and round. Then he exited with his followers, and invited anyone who wished to do a round to enter the gazebo and do one. There were no gamers, so the performance came to its natural conclusion. Ring around the Leaning Tower of Octopus?

Photo of Glenn Lewis by Henry Chan:

Shortly after Lewis’s conclusion, it was time to go outside or in front of the gallery. Gustavo Alvarez Lugo has already made a petit installation on the sidewalk, with a small object-holder of sorts, two toy bubble-blowers, and a small but ominous snake figure. The performance artist was wearing his trademark MUSGUS yellow boiler-suit, but today he was favouring a blue wrestling hat. After checking his sidewalk set-up, Gustavo began running on the sidewalk, jumping over his installation. He did this back and forth for a while, eventually for shorter distances until he stopped. Pedestrians walked around the performance and the sidewalk installation. Many stopped and watched. He shouted out SHOKWAME HAS COME. Shokwame is an evil man, a witch, a questionable magician.

He retrieved a black string and wrapped it around an audience member’s lower left leg. He found other semi-consenting observers at four corners from each other and tied them all to his central installation. The Shokwame has come. He caresses his blue wrestling-helmet, then removes it and begins to cut it open along the seams. He now has a mask with eyes, nose, and mouth. He adds it to the street-sculpture. Now he lies down, blows a few tentative bubbles, again announces that The Shokwame has come, and then concludes the performance. A young bystander/observer asked if he can have the mask. Gustavo declines the request, but informs the boy that he has other masks. This is November 2nd, the Mexican day of the Dead.

In the evening, I enter XPACE and observe Sakiko Yamaoka arranging eating and drinking utensils on a long table. She has rows of plastic glasses, Styrofoam cups, cheap wine or juice glasses, and coffee mugs. She is pouring coffee grains into the coffee cups and red wine into the juice glasses. More red wine, I remark to myself. She also poured water into the Styrofoam cups.

Photo of Marilyn Arsem by Henry Chan:

A durational performance by Boston-based Marilyn Arsem is in progress downstairs in the dungeon. I eagerly walk downstairs and am impressed by a simple but effective tableau. Overgrown flowers spill over a red clay vase while a woman lies very still on the floor, with long brown hair flowing well on top of her head. A four-note musical motif repeats itself - it is the sound of Chinese wind-chimes and it appears to be activated by a heater. The chimes seem to be singing Are You Sleeping. Water very slowly is dripping from the pipes in the ceiling - this is also no accident. I think Gothic, Day of the Dead, and Murder Mystery installations. I plan to return at the first intermission.

In the introduction to Sakiko Yamaoka’s performance, Paul Couillard refers to this artist’s previous site-specific performances during the festival, Wind From Sky. Sakiko not only co-ordinated sleep-ins in financial institutions, she “impersonated” a plant in three variety or convenience stores (I regret missing these performances, but my colleague Elaine Wong did witness at least some of them.) The artist held up a statement:

Human beings are alive
Plants are alive
Therefore human beings are plants

Despite wondering how perhaps animals fitted into this equation, I was intrigued by the nonsensically rational premise. I found a strategic viewing position as Sakiko began to move her dessert-sized plates into positions behind the glasses and cups and then press down on the plates. This pressure had the effect of moving the entire arrangement forward, until the plastic glasses began to fall onto the floor. It was quite fascinating to watch Sakiko’s nobody positions as she arranged the plates into the most effective positions at the back of the table, while more and more plastic glasses were falling and water was beginning to drip from the Styrofoam cups. Soon Styrofoam cups began to fall to the ground. The first landed vertically, but that was only the first. I thought at first she might continue this process until all of the plastic glasses and Styrofoam cups were off the table, but it became apparent that the entire table has to be cleared. Then, since the initial juice glasses did not break upon landing, I thought her pressure might be so delicate as to avoid breakage. I thought that might be one of her intentions. But the falling glasses and the subsequent coffee cups began shattering ans shattering, and the water puddle on the flor was joined by wine and coffee beans.

Photos of Sakiko Yamaoka by Henry Chan.

As she approached the final clearance of the table, Sakiko had to lean further and further across that table to push the contents off. I did think of a plant that might be sprawling out of control, or might be dying and losing its shape and its elegance. But this impression was countered by the performer’s need to clear that table, and to press harder in order to do so.

When the table was finally cleared, this was not the end of f the performance but rather the end of an initial movement. Next, Sakiko used her body to push the empty table up through the gallery toward the front door, but stopping in front of the admissions desk After wiping the table clean with paper leaflets, she stood up on the table, with a plastic bag from which she retrieved plastic bags, folded neatly and signed Sakiko Y. 2008. She handed them out to willing members of the audience, who were instructed to shake them and make noise. Sakika conducted the audience like an orchestra, or perhaps she was playing around with the dynamics of crowd control. Or perhaps this was now the wind from the sky - the shaking sounds from the bags invoked wind and sometimes rain. The audience surrendered to her elements and obeyed her gentle commands - softer, louder, fortissimo, up, down, etcetera, Finally there was a denouement, and the performance was finished.

Photo of Sakiko Yamaoka by Henry Chan:

This was a superbly involving performance. It contained ritual, destruction, reconstruction, and rejuvenation. It may indeed have been analogous to a plant (or animal?) shedding leaves, shedding excess, changing habitats and seasons, and regenerating. Whether or not it can be read allegorically, it was a pleasure to observe, even though I resisted my own temptation to shake.

Since a break was announced, I almost ran downstairs to see where Marilyn Arsem’s performance had evolved to. It was a beautifully calm environment compared to the jostling for positions during Sakiko’s performance, and Marilyn had moves along the string or wire slanted across the east/west axis of the downstairs space. The string attached to the plant has become more visible, and I and others wondered whether she was activating the strings or the strings were pulling her. Her hair was not stretched out as much from her head now, but she was in a static (and seemingly unconscious) position. The chimes continued to ask the performer if she was asleep.

By now Helsinki-based artist Annette Arlander was set up and ready to begin. Arlander had linked two plinths vertically and placed an old birch nest of tululenpesa onto the plinths. Tuulenpesa are an assemblage of assorted elements - witches brooms, messy conglomerates of branches, all caused by a fungus named Taphnana. Such an assemblage is known as a wind nest, witch was the title of Arlander’s performance. Tuulenpesa often grow in birch trees, and Arlander had kept a large wind nest from a birch tree that had been damaged by a storm on the Harakiia Island in Helsinki, where the artist has a studio. An image of the island’s landscape was projected on to a screen - a shadowy figure was seen against a tree stump from a tree that had also been damaged by this storm.
Photo (Above) of Annette Arlander (Helsinki) by Henry Chan.
Photo (Below) of audience participant in Arlander's performance by Henry Chan.

Arlander’s practice has for some time concentrated on what she calls landscape performance. Not only does an audience see video documentation and found objects idiosyncratic to particular locations with particular natural forces; the artist evokes her own and others’ bodily present in these specific environments and intends to share that presence. Arlander announced that she would be using a musical landscape/composition titled Enter The Unexpected, by Adita. Then she placed the wind nest assemblage onto her back, handed out headphones to some but not all audience members, and positioned herself in a meditative lookout position in relation to her projection. The headphones were branching out from her body, and some audience members who had chosen to attach them into their ears found themselves being drawn closer to the performer. I chose to remain stationary when I was offered headphones by another audience member, and then I came to realize that I would be missing a key component of the landscape or performance if I did not wear phones. So I did, and I heard the artist’s voice reciting an original poem “Wind nest…place of refuge…” The poem was only a minute’s length, it was meant to be experienced only for that duration and certainly not throughout the entire performance and/or installation. As Arlander remained relatively static in her contemplative position, I became aware of the live wind sounds that were elemental to the artist’s sound scape (in addition to the trance-like music). In comparison to many of the add-a-part improvisational performances of the festival and also many of those performances concerned with pushing bodies to extremities, Arlander’s performance was slow, contemplative, and about listening as much as seeing. It involved and also invoked the so-called lower senses - smell, and touch. Wind Nest nicely counterbalanced Marilyn Arsem’s slowly unravelling spatial performance that was occurring concurrently in the downstairs space.

Photos of Gustavo Alvarez "Musgus" Lugo by Henry Chan:

The final performer of both the evening and the festival was none other than Gustavo Alvarez "Musgus" Lugo himself. This time performing inside a gallery space rather than on the street or in a public location, Gustavo had assembled one of his trademark altar- installations on the floor. He entered banging a drum on its side with a mallet-stick, and he wore a facial mask on the back of his head. He moves toward audience members while banging the drum. Then he walks up to the west gallery wall furthest from the street and writes CHABOCHI on that wall.

The word CHABOCHI loosely translates as outsider, or foreigner, or person outside of polite or acceptable society (suspect-immigrants, suspected terrorists, persons with AIDS, lepers, etcetera). “Chabochi is a concept that the Tarahumanas (indigenous to the region of Chihuahua) use to determine the mestizo, the one that is not like them, who is not of them, the one that is different.” (7a*11d catalogue, 2008, p.37)

Photos of Gustavo Alvarez "Musgus" Lugo by Henry Chan:

Gustavo lights the contents of a cup which is part of his little shrine or altar, and uses paper to increase the burning. He picks up the cup and transports it over to the wall under his writing, lets the fire extinguish, and asks the audience “Who is Chabochi?” He wants a volunteer - he wants someone else to declare themselves other or outside. He procures willing participants from the audience - Istvan Kantor, Annette Arlander, others. (I let my guard down and volunteered.). Those who admitted or declared themselves CHABOCHI were handed plastic flag-papers similar to the ones Gustavo had used in his Museum Subway Station installation, and instructed to tape them to the gallery wall and write their names on the wall at the top of the papers. When all the volunteers had done so, Gustavo then inverted the dynamics - the balance of his equation. He asserted that there is no Chabochi, that there should be no more Chabochis, and that there was one world. Then he said thank you, and the performance and the performances of the 2008 7a*11d festival were now history. The Day of the Dead had been observed, and now the Day of the Dead had drawn to its conclusion.

Photo by Henry Chan:

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Chaw Ei Thein's Final Performance of "Quiet River" (EW)

Photos of Chaw Ei Thein by Henry Chan.

November 1 2008

As the crowd emerged into the Free Gallery, we saw creative resident Chaw Ei Thein's finished mural. In addition to what I have already described in previous posts, the artist had now addressed the other half of the canvas, incorporating an embryo surrounded by bloody handprints, purple people linking arms to creating a line across the mural and a blue woman, being encroached upon by a demon, with a dove emerging from her mouth. A mural of bold contrast and fantastical colours, Chaw Ei's work presented themes of imploring hands and silent eyes.

On paper above the mural was written "Quiet River = In this dark + closed space = suffering - getting my body = my body + spirit + possibilities for ...... = reality ? = freedom from fear = being Performance Artist = .... + ...... + ..... = ... + ......... + ......... = Quiet River"

Eventually we were led into the back room of the gallery, in the centre of which sat a large cardboard box, painted black, with eight candles in a circle around it. The audience gathered tightly into the space and the stillness was overwhelming -- the shuffling of bodies was stifling in the room. After a very long moment, we heard scratchings, shufflings from inside the box: the sound of crumpling paper and shifting cardboard. A hole began to emerge in the side of the box, and soon another hole on another side. From this second hole, crumpled paper was pushed through -- scads of it, onto the floor. After a few individuals came up to take some paper and read what was written on it, one of the members of the Toronto Burma community took it upon himself to bring handfuls around the room. A feeding frenzy (or rather a reading frenzy) began as everyone in the room was flattening out the papers -- photocopies of news articles regarding the actions of the military junta in Burma, and the ineffectual international outrage -- and still the papers kept coming out of the box.

But soon the papers stilled, and more ripping could be heard. The box was being torn apart from the inside; the hole on the side was getting bigger and bigger, and black cloth was pushing out. After several attempts, Chaw Ei emerged, encased entirely in a long black bodybag. She writhed and wriggled free of the box and groped her way out of the room, clutching at audience members' ankles and banging walls in her desperate attempt to escape. She emerged into the main gallery, still reaching blindly, until she was able to find her mural and the paints set up in front of the blank space left in the centre of the canvas.

Photos of Chaw Ei Thein by Henry Chan.

The emotion was overwhelming as we watched the artist, still trapped in her bodybag, open the paints and use her cloth-covered hands to smear letters across the mural spelling "BURMA what next?" After this Chaw Ei was finally able to shed her mobile prison -- but even still, she exchanged her salmon tank top and black pants for the traditional (and often culturally enforced) clothing of Burmese women. With tears still fresh on her cheeks, she handed out articles to the audience about the brain drain in Burma, the trend in young people who are able to get their educations abroad and never return to help their old country. Quiet River is an ordeal from which Chaw Ei has been able to emerge, but even still the images and emotions are haunting.


Saturday, November 1, 2008

Robin Poitras: Of bells and whistles (EW)

Photo (Above) of Sini Haapalinna by Henry Chan.
Photo (Below) of Don Simmons and cyclists by Henry Chan.

October 31 2008

Robin Poitras began the day's performances with a presentation of 'Sometimes Three' alongside Brenda Cleniuk and Leanne Lloyd. They collected in front of the Design Exchange, a single serious line of black accented in brass and red leather. The premise of the piece was simple: the three artists sat on wooden benches, with black umbrellas open and horses' bells draped across their legs, using the motion of their bodies to sound the bells. The response it evoked was much more complex.

The image that I saw in their performance was of three Apollonian priestesses/Oracles intertwined with the three witches of Macbeth. Heralding out a coming prophecy, and deliberately linked to the fluctuating stock exchange, the sober act continued in the back courtyards of the financial district. The trio made tighter and tighter circles as they continued to perform -- something big was coming, and we should all be prepared.

In any case, the visual impact of the piece complemented the aural chords, as the sets of bells mingle and chimed. Each performer shook at her own pace, creating her own pattern of notes; they were connected but individual, inseparable but independent. Mimicking the bells of the stock exchange, the bells of the performance sped up and slowed down, alternately marking out strict tempos and rushing through jumbles of notes.

At the end of the performance, the artists gathered their materials, stool under one arm and bells and umbrella hung carefully on the other, hand outstretched as if waiting for a sign. They walked slowly through the same CIBC that had Sakiko Yamaoka so worried the other day, and brought their performance full circle to the street.

Jason Lim set the Hallowe'en tone for the evening as he performed a durational work just outside XPACE. Standing with a trio of glasses under each foot, he drew black thread from a large spool and draped it loosely on his hand, his arms moving back and forth as if he were an automated anti-spinning machine. As he progressed, pausing occasionally to check its size and watch it flutter in the wind, the variation in the lengths of thread took on the appearance of a wig of human hair. Which was exactly Lim's intention as in the finale of his performance he donned the wig (shot through with threads of red) and carefully kicked out the glasses from beneath his feet until he could balance no longer.

The evening's indoor performances began with Don Simmons' 'Picked you out of my pocket and death was the door prize', a bit of a spectacle for the gallery. (Forgive me for not having the proper vocabulary to describe this piece!) Three stunt bikers rode into the studio space slowly, dressed in hooded whites and black dirt masks, while Simmons stood at his audio booth and freehanded the audio layer of the performance.

Photo of cyclist participating in Don Simmon's performance by Henry Chan.

Street ambience, howling wind and effects like smashing glass and honking horns layered themselves as the bikers lined up and performed stunts one at a time. Every so often all three would ride up toward the edge of the audience, as if to leap over them, but pulled back at the last moment. I wasn't sure if the audio was reacting to the cyclists or vice versa, but as the riders progressed through their stunts the layers of the audio got thicker and harsher until all audio and light dropped. A projection came up on the back wall, describing the process of leaving ghost bikes: bicycles painted white and left at accident sites as homages, as eulogies, to mark the passage of fallen cyclists around the world. The written text explained the vulnerability of a cyclist in a process of introspection, and the contrast between action and stillness, between audio and silence, marked the moment all the more sharply.

Photo of Natasha Bailey and Danielle Williams by Henry Chan.

From the window of the gallery came a durational installation from Natasha Bailey & Danielle Williams. The floor of the window nook was littered with electronic correspondence and on the back wall hung a painter's jumpsuit, latex gloves, a pair of white socks, and a paintbrush. On a stool sat a bucket of flour paste.

Photo of Natasha Bailey and Danielle Williams by Henry Chan.

Into this 'seen unseen' scene, the two artists emerged clad only in strategically placed scraps of papier-mache. Taking their places on the raised floor, their hands clasped and their bodies pressed against the glass, the duo struck an image in the window. Mahan Javadi entered the picture, dressed a bit like an exterminator without the gas mask, and slowly began to entomb the artists against the glass with their own words. At first the pair free to talk but as the layer of paper moves further up their bodies, they are stifled into stillness, eyes closed and almost mummified.

This shared experience, similar to Angelika Fojtuch's last night, read as a comment on human relationships, on what they can weather and how easily they can be buried. We are reminded again that relationships are an endurance. The artists are on a search "for honest communication" (as per their self-description in the catalogue), and yet even this live action is mediated by the history of all the text and words that have transpired between them. In the end, though, Bailey and Williams were able to tear free of their confines and revel in the reality of their interaction, knowing that they have weathered at least this much together.

Photo of Sini Haapalinna by Henry Chan.

The technical phantasmagoria of Sini Haapalinna bore an apt name in 'KALEIDOSCOPOPSPECTACAL Live Cinematic Trans Flux', as the gallery became a playground of light, sound and video effects that I must admit are right up my alley. Using an audio effects unit, a series of contact microphones, a light box and a live video feed with programming (delays, inversions, etc), Haapalinna created a series of abstract sound and image vignettes that warped the frame of commonplace objects (bowls of water, plastic toys) into an epic document of the crumbling of life's structures.

As the visual and aural images distorted and layered atop each other, each sound and image invoked another series of sounds and image -- nothing was simply what it was, but was a metaphor, an allusion to other worlds. Clinking bowls became a procession of monks' chimes. Piling bubbles became a mountain of fish eggs while the sprinkles used to break them appeared as a spreading bacterial invasion. Bird calls were reverberated into a haunted forest, and empty bullet casings became bombs as the land of the dinosaurs was bombed to smithereens by army men.

Photos of Sini Haapalinna by Henry Chan.

Time slowed and swirled in the projected image as photographic slides were placed on the lightbox and the camera pressed right up against them to create a composite cityscape in which the statue of liberty decomposed slowly on the screen into the ghostly image of the LED lights strapped to Haapalinna's body as she whirled before the camera. And time reversed on itself as she used a laser pointer to create the look of burnt celluloid in a supremely digital medium.

The final performance of the night was BBB Johannes Deimling's 'No rose without a thorn'. Unceremoniously, he blindfolded himself with his sweater -- and the blindfold continued as he took off each article of his clothing and wrapped it around his head. He even included his shoes, using four pieces of twine to hold the mass together.
Photo (Above) of BBB Johannes Deimling by Henry Chan.
Photo (Below) of BBB Johannes Deimling handing napkin to Sini Haapalinna by Henry Chan.

Then he began scratching himself furiously, raising red lines and drawing blood from his skin before finally wiping himself down with a small napkin. Blind and bloody, he folded the napkin into a haphazard flower and proffered it to the closest audience member, though it took three tries before Haapalinna stood to accept the blossom. Deimling had become his own thorn, commenting on the often self-destructive nature of love and how the idea of blind self-sacrifice, while romantic enough, I suppose, in novels, becomes out of place in reality where awkward silence usually reigns.


Day 9: Friday October 31 (AJP)

Photo (Above) of BBB Johannes Deimling by Henry Chan.
Photo (Below) of Natasha Bailey and Danielle Williams by Henry Chan.

Andrew James Paterson

At twelve noon sharp, Robin Poitras presented an outdoor performance on a lovely pre-Halloween afternoon in downtown Toronto’s financial district. Poitras formed a trio with two other female artists - Brenda Cleniuk and Leanne Lloyd (both from Regina). Dressed in identical black outfits and wearing comfortable red shoes, they held umbrellas over their heads in unusually sunny weather and fastened belts hosting bells around each leg. The three-piece orchestra would sit in wooden stools in different site-specific arrangements and shake their bodies enough so that the bells would ring harmoniously. The ringing was particularly sonorous at the performance’s first location - in front of the Design Exchange (which had originally been the stock exchange). The ringing commenced at noon - high noon. Ringing bells of course carry many associations -meeting time, feeding time, mess time as it is called in the military. The stock market’s daily opening is announced by ringing bells, as is its daily closing. The stock market has of course been oscillating quite wildly in recent times - the stock market has been downright Fluxist.

The closer the performers could sit to each other, the more harmonious the bells. In front of the Design Exchange they were in one of my favourite keys - that of “D”, and the performers’ movements synchronized wonderfully. When the performers moved across the street to a deserted fountain area, they had to sit further apart from each other and some of the intensity was lost. But they could sense this so they picked up the slack, enough to attract the attention of a Security Guard who requested that they relocate. He had been dispatched to remove them from the property, but a compromise was achieved. Therefore, Poitras and her collaborators moved up to another level, and then they walked through them lobby of a large CIBC bank. Would they disturb that peace? (On an earlier day this week, another 7a*11d artist - Sakiko Yamaoka - did conduct or lead a sleep-in in various banks including this one.) No, but people did stare. Perhaps the three women belonged to some religious cult? Or maybe a band? The three performers were definitely on their way to somewhere - they walked with intention.

Photo of Natasha Bailey and Danielle Williams by Henry Chan.

In the evening it was time for another series of performances at Xpace. Prior to the indoor (and window) performances, there was a nicely intimate piece by Jason Lim outside the gallery. I missed the beginning, but when I arrived Jason was un-spooling (despooling?) a roll of industrial strength black string. He was standing on six glasses. Opposite Jason, Norbert Klassen was unspooling a red spool, not standing on six or any number of glasses. This continued for a while, and I looked at the papers and props set up in the gallery window in anticipation of a scheduled performance by Natasha Bailey and Danielle Williams, titled seen unseen. When I turned around to see Jason Lim’s performance, Norbert had excused himself and Jason’s black string was inter-threaded with red string. As I so often do with relatively informal durational performances, I walked elsewhere while intending to return later. When I returned, Jason was now wearing the mass of black string as a shaggy, almost Rastafarian wig over his eyes and he has a string with leaves dangling onto the ground from his upper body. His balance gradually became precarious and he eventually lost his footing from two of his foundation glasses. Thus the performance had to conclude.
Photo of Natasha Bailey and Danielle Williams by Henry Chan.

After watching Natasha Bailey and Danielle Williams mouthing something sweetly inaudible to each other in the window while wearing sparse scraps of paper taped with some Plaster Paris-like and gooey substance to their bodies, a performance by Toronto-based Don Simmons was announced. A man whom I recognized as Simmons stood behind a laptop on a plinth and a sound collage began. Simmons was wearing a white athletic suit with a hood and a black cloth over his mouth. Three bicyclists entered fron the street door, identically dressed with Simmons and with each other. The cyclists rode toward the audience together, and then in competition with each other. They took turns at oneupmanship, riding like skateboard kids, riding like motorcyclists with their wheelies and whatnots.

Photos of Don Simmons and cyclists by Henry Chan:

Simmons’ sound collage was richly detailed. He combined motor and crowd noises, and an interesting dislocation or distance developed between the pre-recorded crowd reactions and those of the audience, who were somewhat amused but impressed with the riders’ agility. But the riders came closer and closer to wiping out, and then the lights went down. So did the sound - completely down and off. A text was projected - a rather lengthy text acknowledging the ongoing bicycle fatalities on Toronto’s and other streets and spoken from the perspective of somebody committed to the group Advocacy for Respect for Cyclists, or ARC. The text indicates that the speaker dutifully attends memorials for fallen cyclists, even though he does not know any of the dead. Whatever, he still feels a need to be there. The contrast between the live and dangerous and the elegiac in Simmons’ performance was considerable, and it was the prime intention of this performance. There was an effective contrast between what was live and vulnerable, and what it was like to be sitting in a movie theatre and taking in plot and/or information with the lights down and everything confined to the screen. Simmons’ performance was titled Picked you out of my pocket and death was the door prize. The door prize is an award given to motorists who violate a cardinal road rule and fail to look before opening their vehicle doors.

Photos of Sini Haapalinna by Henry Chan:

The next performance was by Helsinki-based Sini Haapalinna, who crouched on the floor in front of a surface containing various objects and also in front of a small video-camera. There was a screen on the wall behind her. She began placing objects in the camera’s field and playing with them, creating moving pictures. She also would make sounds with various objects and play the sounds against the pictures. Sini was highly skilled at layering images. She performed an extended secton with a simple water bowl that she could multiply and alter the textures of by playing with the camera but also water itself - skimming it and even splashing it a little. She blew bubbles into the water bowl and achieved a wonderful lava-like texture. She used filters or screens, she moved like a slow dancer in front of the screen with LEDs after setting enough images and sound in motion. She added parts on top of added parts. Much of her performance -Kaleidoscopopspectacal - consisted of layering parts (both sight and sound) in top of already added sounds and then finding another object to explore - to see how it might generate images and sounds. The effects were often striking, but the performance did go on for too long.
Photos of BBB Johannes Deimling by Henry Chan.

The final performance was by Berlin-based BBB Johannes Deimling, in collaboration with FADO Performance Art Centre of Toronto. This untitled performance was very effective due to its relative simplicity. After announcing that only members of 7a*11d could document his performance, Deimling stood centre playing area and began systematically removing his garments. He would blindfold himself with his clothes, wrapping them around his head like a bath towel or a turban or some bizarre head gear (bizarre because it was comprised of very ordinary or everyday clothing.) He took off his shoes, he added his socks to the head contraption, and he even added the shoes after taking off his underwear (and wrapping it around his head. His body was naked, but he was also wearing a seriously cumbersome head-dress.

Then he began scrubbing his body, like a person showering but with nails. The scrubbing or cleaning accelerated into scratching. He scratched harder and harder and drew what looked like welts as well as bleeding. When he had scratched to satisfaction or his limit, he used a tissue to stop the bleeding and to wash off his body, to soften or restore it. Then he placed the tissue on his left little finger and struck two poses. Then he handed the tissue to the nearest audience member, who happened to be Sini Haapalinna. The performance and the evening were now complete and concluded.

This evening of course being Halloween, there were occasional confusion about who was a performer and who wasn’t during the changeovers or intermissions. This was fun - it was amusing. But no trick and treating pour moi. I had to get home and get to work, and then get to sleep.