Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Final words (DB)

In his incomparable Homo Ludens, Johan Huizinga argued, at length and with vast erudition, that the idea of play is at the origins of our idea of thinking. What he meant by “thinking” was not a purely private, introspective process, something done by solitary individuals in their studies or monk’s cells, but rather an experimental process by which we attempt to find some meaningful correspondence between the stream of subjectivity and the stream of reality so-called. Public events in which the social order is temporarily suspended, like carnivale or Halloween, are part of that process. The idea that play might provide not just a relief from the tedium of daily life, but the possibility of radically reformulating how we see the world as well as how we act in it, attracted Situationists like Guy Debord to Huizinga’s writings. Performance art is also a mode of thinking in this sense: an open-ended experiment in how we see ourselves and the world, suspended at the cusp between our subjective and our public selves.  For this reason it is appropriate that the final two days of this year’s 7a*11d festival took place on the weekend of Halloween, performers and attendees alike decked out in skin-tight glittery cat suits, devil horns, rabbit ears, white zombie makeup and the like.  It is worthwhile dwelling on what the idea of “experiments in thinking” might really mean.  In most of our life, “thinking” implies reasoning something through based on beliefs that we already have, or could easily acquire based on beliefs that we have: we decide that we should get a different cell phone service because another company offers the same thing for less, or that we should go back to school and get a degree as a computer technician because being a freelance writer or a performance artist offers a future of destitution and isolation, or that we should drop everything and follow our new lover to Kamchatka because we value love and freedom and volcanic landscapes over stability and predictability.  Or whatever.  Experiments in thinking, by contrast, suggest that we are not moving forward based on what we know, but rather opening ourselves to reshaping the way we think.

Sylvie Tourangeau and Claudia Wittmann’s performance in the penumbral back room of The Toronto Free Gallery Friday afternoon was intensely insular: as an audience, we watched their bodies move, their breaths emerge from their bodies, as though watching a kind of corporeal consciousness ravel back toward its origins.  Tourangeau’s solo performance Saturday night, on the other hand, was outwardly directed toward the audience, making the audience literally and figuratively part of the process. Early in the performance, Tourangeau unfurled black, red, and white streamers out into the audience from a glass bowl, asking audience members to hold them taut and aloft so that they served as vector lines linking the audience with the liminal space of the performance.  Then she invited selected audience members to come on stage and sit with her, shoulders back, intensely concentrated on the act of sitting.  Tourangeau’s piece not only created symbolic physical links between the performance and the audience, but also served as a kind of meditation on the relationship between performing and simply existing in space. Irish artist Teresa Dillon’s piece, by contrast, was both improvisatory, in the moment, and trace-like.  Having invited men over fifty to collaborate with her on a work that combined visuals and music, Dillon and her small entourage had created the performance earlier that morning. Lights dimmed, patterns pulsed on the screen on the back wall.  Andrew Paterson appeared with an electric guitar and began playing a low, repetitive refrain, the other men following with microphones singing ditties reaffirming their desires and life.  Dillon meanwhile literally hissed into the microphone, her voice seeming to come from a megaphone in some old revolution.  In the end, Dillon’s piece had a slow, beautiful violence to it that got under one’s skin and is ultimately difficult to describe.

Certain modes of performance, I noted in an earlier blog, combine the procedural with the symbolic, the two modes closely intertwined, and the magical piece by Quebec artist Étienne Boulanger falls into that category. Standing in front of a sinister scaffold with a chair set to one side, Boulanger announced that the work that was to follow was “inspired by a nonsense conversation, a dead-end conversation.”  He handed glasses of water out to the audience, then sat down in the chair and tilted back until, finally, he crashed backwards.  He got back up and set up a kind of teeter-totter, placing a bowl filled with sugar at one end.  He looped a rope with a bag at one end through the scaffold and up through the ceiling, holding it tautly aloft.  Then, sitting down again, he leaned back, and as he fell backwards again, the scaffold lurched forward, striking the balance and spraying the sugar into the air.  The piece’s mechanism had an immaculate and beautiful pointlessness to it, a dangerous trick whose end result was air full of sugar. Pancho López – whose appearance had been delayed by several days due to visa problems coming from Mexico – arrived late and truculent.  He pasted the word “Visa” letter by letter to the front of his shirt.  Mexican music playing and replaying in the background, he proceeded to open a case of Champagne, shooting each cork into the audience, smirking, as he filled up a huge bunch bowl with Champagne, and occasionally taking a swig.  When he was finished, he sank the letters into the Champagne.  Then, suddenly, he grabbed a baseball bat, shattering the bowl, sending a sea of champagne cascading onto the floor.

Julian Higuerey Nuñez’s piece, the conditions of surrender, provided an appropriate coda to the festival.  Nuñez had been following the festival all along, sweeping up the spaces after the performances.  He took the physical traces of the festival, mixed it into what proved to be a translucent, water-based ink, and wrote on a temporary wall in the gallery: (1) I will go last (on the final performing night), (2) I will sweep (or vacuum) the floors at the end, (3) I will use the collected dust to make a water based ink, (4) I will write, using the ink, the conditions of surrender, (5) this is not to be referred to as performing.  Nuñez’s piece was at once self-referential, humble, ruminative, and strangely beautiful.

In Roddy Hunter’s lecture earlier in the week , “Notes Toward ‘The Eternal Network’ in the Era of Globalization,” he suggested that we may want to give up the term “Performance Art” in favor of “Action Art”; in part because performance art seems to encompass such a vast array of activities and practices, many of which bear little resemblance to “performance” as the term is usually understood, that it is no longer illuminating. I would agree with him as far as such terminological issues go—and there was, of course, a great deal more to his lecture than that—but I also think that some of the most interesting work pushes the boundaries between art and life, art and the world, so hard, that almost no term is appropriate, except perhaps “art.” When Michael Fernandes wandered around Bloor street, or sat in front of an audience laconically reading a peculiar and obscure book about the life of faeries, one was hard pressed to discern the difference between his simply engaging in those activities and presenting a work of art, and indeed the vanishing difference seemed to rest in the activities of trying to make that distinction.  And when Tehching Hsieh completed his final, thirteen-year performance, he announced that the work had consisted entirely in living. As this year’s festival amply demonstrated, art in this context is meant to insert itself into the interior of what it means to live here and now.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Karen Elaine Spencer - sittin'

Saturday, October 30, 2010 - Union Station 10 AM - 6 PM

he asked me what i was doing here. i replied, "working." i then contextualized this by saying i was doing research, embodied research, researching what it was to be a stationary presence within a place of transit. he accepted my explanation saying if there was anything i needed, they were always here.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Carlos Monroy, St. Lawrence Market, Saturday October 30, 2010 (NL)

I approach the St. Lawrence Street Market from Union Station. It is slightly chilly on this second to last day of the festival. I am looking for the CMG Performance Art Services booth, which has been described to me as an organization by and for artists, figure-headed by Columbian artist Carlos Monroy, that promises to make performance art more economically accessible while giving performance artists a regular source of income. I am intrigued…

First I see the banner, large, blue on white: Make Art Work For You. As I arrive, I see Monroy deep in conversation with a passer-by. I listen in while looking over the booth wares: a corporate video advertizing the company and a service catalogue complete with mission statement and corporate logo. As I peruse the catalogue, looking over work – work that I can presumably purchase, though it is still opaque to me exactly how such a purchase might operate – I hear Monroy extolling the value of performance art and art more generally for the good of the demos. A family of four visiting from India nod in agreement, particularly the father, who launches into a story about the appalling public support for the arts in his hometown and the difficult fate of his brother, a sculptor. While Monroy encourages the whole family to join his service, I turn back to the catalogue and video.

In both, the work for sale is separated into four categories: Temporary and Ritualistic; Public Spaces; Minimalistic and Formalstic; Identity Issues Related; Institutional Critique. I am leafing through a performance art library ready to be bought and sold for my aesthetic pleasure. Looking for something to brighten up your corporate retreat this year? Purchase some performance art, all tied up in a lovely corporate bow. It seems difficult not to read the stall as a send-up, especially when watching the corporate video playing on loop at one end of the performance booth. Over and over again the video intones: We are artists thinking about how to help other artists be creatively and economically successful without sacrificing the real soul of what makes performance art.…We are contemporary, vibrant, aggressive and ownable…. We offer a truly here and now experience….We are confident, dynamic, versatile … instead of trafficking in the buying and selling of objects we focus on the context in which the action is happening…

CMG Performance Art Services is sold as a brand identity. However, while not completely convincing as a business pitch, it works as satire. As I lean in, I could be listening to an articulate and vibrant aunt trying to sell me a pitch from a pyramid kit she ordered over the internet in order to get her home-business off the ground. It has both that kind of zeal and fragility. Monroy begins (I paraphrase): Performance artists normally sell pictures and videos of performance work as documentation. This is their only long term access to an artistic commodity circuit. We at Performance Art Services insist that liveness is lost with these practices. Instead, we propose selling the performance itself, as a propositional co-authored construct! While it might look like what is being sold is the script of the performance, we assert that it is instead the soul of liveness that we traffic in. We do this by insisting that each iteration is a new one, a collaboration between the original author of the piece and a local performer. We don’t re-produce, we don’t re-do, we engage in a co-authorship, co-writing practice.

Furthermore, Monroy continues, CMG Performance Art Services is, like many contemporary businesses, committed to public outreach and education. In categorizing the product into “five styles of performance” the public is invited to think about an anatomy of performance art. To recognize genre distinctions within a notoriously difficult to understand artistic form. Bringing performance art into the streets and homes and corporate corners of the world – In Monroy’s words, bringing it to the “real public,” that is, to people who don’t already know how to think about performance art – CMG Performance Art Services argues that by co-opting the well-known Multi-Level Marketing business model made famous by housewives flocking dishware and makeup all performance artists can make a living wage.

With Joseph Beuys’s famous dictum “everyone is an artist” as the ground of his project, he asks each passerby to join the flock, believe in the cause, and network – for a small fee – in the name of performance.

Berenicci Hershorn, XSPACE, Saturday October 30, 2010 (NL)

As I head down the stairs to XSPACE’s basement area, XBASE, I hear a faint digital soundtrack that manages to entice me and make me uneasy all at once. It is high pitched and rhythmic, like the clicking and beeping of some alien Pigmy music. At the far end of the basement Berenicci Hershorn stands in a clear plastic enclosure, bright spotlight behind her. The plastic gives the performance a danger-zone feeling. Her smock has a large black decal at the chest, and for the life of me I can’t help thinking that it looks like the headdress of a HAZMAT suit. Whatever is going on behind the plastic is meant to invoke toxicity. Or messiness. Or something dangerous. To my left, as I stand before the plastic enclosure, is a huge mountain of ice piled inside of a large chalk circle. It glistens under a white spotlight like a mound of oversized diamonds. In the center of the space is an old tin kettle, boiling on a plinth and lit by a tiny red LED. It also stands inside of a large chalk circle. We are privy to a ceremony of some sort, but whether it will end in mercy or malice I am not sure.

Hershorn’s action is repetitive. For the duration of the evening she stands behind a long kitchen table wearing a white smock. Methodically, she removes a piece of newspaper from a pile, folds it in preparation, and places it in the center of the table. She then pours a dollop of a red viscous material (paint?) from a tin watering can into the center of the newspaper and gently folds it into a little packet. Each folded newspaper is a feat of Origami. Gently she ties the packet with a piece of twine and places it at the top of the table. In between each action Hershorn cleans the space. The pile of red liquid packets accumulate as the performance moves from its first into its second into its third into its fourth hour, some seeping through, some retaining their integrity. Fold. Pour. Tie. Place. Clean. These are the five actions that Hershorn repeats and repeats. The steam from the kettle, meanwhile, permeates the space with a faint something – I can’t quite tell what. The smell is soothing, in stark contrast to the sound and the site of Hershorn herself, who I find determinately unsettling as I inhabit her symbolic universe in its fastidious and unremitting continuity.

Over the course of this five-hour performance, Hershorn invites us to experience something between the production of bio-weapons of mass destruction and a Voodoo high-priestess' ritual. As her smock becomes smeared with blood-redness, the enormous pile of ice (I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that it is 40 or 50 bags worth) begins running a river of water towards the front of the space. I watch the water in two forms, the ice on the floor and the steam from the kettle, transforming and moving through space. I watch Hershorn making her little tied packets of blood-not-blood, ready to post or send or scatter to whichever corners they are destined for. I watch all of these things to the sound of the electronic alien Pygmies, and leave the space for the final time, as I began: vaguely unnerved.

Roddy Hunter, Through Michael Fernandes, Toronto Free Gallery, Friday October 29, 2010 (NL)

My day starts, again, by going to the Toronto Free Gallery at noon to meet with Michael Fernandes and witness his ongoing Doing Things With Strangers. For four days of the festival, loosely between the hours of noon and five, we have all been put on alert: Michael Fernandes is performing in and around the Toronto Free Gallery. Because of this, we have all watched his actions – sitting in on the afternoon Performance Art Daily talks, wandering the streets interacting with business owners, asking an artist where she is from and what kind of work she does, sitting in a cafe over coffee - with attention. All these things have both been constituted as performance and as a question: is he performing? Up until today – so for the first two and a half days of the performance – this has been maintained actively as a question, with Fernandes offering only his enigmatic look or wry smile when asked when/where are you performing?

Today starts much the same: I arrive at the gallery and notice him sitting, ready for this afternoon’s Performance Art Daily, a talk by UK artist, critic, organizer and teacher Roddy Hunter. Despite myself I, too, want to go up and ask Fernandes if he's performing this afternoon. Though that question seems increasingly antithetical to what he's doing, as someone tasked with writing about the piece a part of me wants to know for certain: is this it or not? Am I supposed to be writing about what's happening now or not? Sitting down for Hunter's talk - Notes Towards the Eternal Network in an Era of Globalization - I find myself listening through the lens of Fernandes’s Doing Things With Strangers.

Hunter starts us off with an autobiographical sampler of his performances over the last 20 years. We are treated to an onslaught of works – 30 or 40 – each represented by a single image and brief description. What is central here is not so much the work or its genesis but instead the geographical location of each work, detailing a chronogeography of art actions: Hungary. Kazakhstan. Japan. Berlin. Transylvania. Toronto. Serbia. Poland. Taking off just his left shoe and sock he navigates these art actions for us, bringing our attention to the interrelationship between forms of visibility (art actions) and forms of capitalism - the circulation of economic, social, cultural and symbolic capital as constitutive of contemporary networks including those of the performance art festival.

Hunter’s central terms for this analysis come from sociologist Henri Lefebvre, particularly his distinction between “the global” and “the mondial.” While the global - and, by extension, globalization - refers to a totality, to an effect, the mondial and mondialisation refer to a making practice, to a making and remaking of worldwide space. The mondial - multiple, fractured, process-driven - gives rise to the possibility of parallel worlding practices. It is in this context that Hunter wants to question performance art… What world are we building when we organize, dis-organise and re-organize international performance art festivals and traffic in the circulation of international performing bodies and the dissemination of local cultural (performance) discourses? In other words, how do we as performance artists inhabit capital? Is it possible, he asks, that artists in the performance art network, traveling everywhere, themselves articulate a form of aesthetic neo-colonialism? In this context, Doing Things With Strangers becomes the fear that the stranger will become obsolete. That instead of trafficking in difference, the performance art festival circuit will work only to increase sameness. While concerned with what he dubs a kind of neo-liberal colonialism, the network - a figure of possibility for Hunter, riffing on George Brecht and Robert Filiou - is nonetheless what can be mobilized to replace the outdated concept of the historical avant-garde in thinking about these practices. While the historical avant-garde is a category dependent on a rejected mainstream, the network, like the mondial, becomes a figure for living in the same world, but living in it differently - in effect replacing a binary with a rhizomatic figure. Hunter's talk, experienced in the context of Fernandes and Doing Things With Strangers, recalls for me the term altermondialisation, not just as an umbrella term for activists advocating alternate forms of globalization, but also as it is mobilized by feminist theorists and philosophers like Donna Haraway, Rosi Braidotti, and Beatriz Preciado. Altermondialisation takes seriously the ethics and the aesthetics of worlding practices so dear to both Hunter and Fernandes – to Fernandes through Hunter, Hunter through Fernandes, each in different idioms, different densities and textures of practice.

After the talk I mill around, following Michael Fernandes in his "other-worldalisation," at a a distance, feeling like a performance art stalker. On duty but not wanting to interfere, I watch him go up to one person – a stranger? – and strike up a conversation. I watch him bum a cigarette from another. After a while I stand next to him and, when there is a lull in the conversation, I break down and gently ask the question I have been enjoying not knowing the answer to: whether he is performing this afternoon. He gives me a look. People keep coming up to me and asking whether I am performing. They say “where have you been? I have been looking for you performing and haven’t been able to find you.” You know what I tell them? You don’t need to look for me, I am here! I am right here! This is it! I nod and step back to observe again. The performance has shifted from an enigmatic question, is this performance?, to a forceful assertion, this is performance!

I am left with the question, what kinds of other-worlding are being practiced here? What multiple, fractured, process-driven, making and remakings of worldwide space? What parallel worlding practices? A Dick Higgins quotation from Hunter's talk is haunting me: “[C]offee cups can be more beautiful than fancy sculptures. A kiss in the morning can be more dramatic than a drama by Mr. Fancypants. The sloshing of my foot in my wet boot sounds more beautiful than fancy organ music.” Doing Things With Strangers, however, is not about a (perhaps not so) simple engagement with what the lens of performance can offer to the practice of daily life, but more emphatically about the role that performance can play in creating new lines across social difference. After a half an hour or so, I see Fernandes leave and I let him go, unencumbered by my nosiness, off into a world of strangers.

Karen Elaine Spencer - sittin'

Friday, October 29, 2010 - Union Station 9 AM - 5 PM

 if you come to see me but cannot find me, does this mean you missed my performance? this is not my question. if you come to see me but cannot locate me, my question is, "what does this produce?"

Friday, October 29, 2010

Pancho Lopez, Anger, XSpace, Friday October 29, 2010 (NL)

Some music plays, a lovely smooth Latin something. There is a pedestal with a fishbowl on it and a small table with what looks like 24 bottles of champagne. Pancho Lopez is introduced by festival co-organizer Tanya Mars. She informs us that Lopez, who had been scheduled to perform last week but was denied access to the country, was finally granted a visa and would tonight be performing a piece called “anger.” With that introduction done, Lopez slowly lays out 8 pieces of paper, each bearing the word “VISA” in large font and all caps. When each sheet is in place - forming a barrier between him and the audience - he puts on an apron, takes out four vinyl letters, V, I, S, A, and glues them to it.

Lopez pops a bottle to the music. The cork hits an audience member. He pours a small glass and hands it to another audience member. He pours a few more, with flourish, until the first bottle is empty. The next bottle he allows to pop safely, anti-climatically (all of us prepared, with ducked heads), and pours the whole bottle into the fishbowl. He repeats the process with the next bottle, and the next, sometimes shaking the bottle to the music. A dance of champagne, music, and foam. At one point the “S” on his apron begins to come up. He opens a glue stick and re-sticks the letter. He then takes out some chapstick and puts it on his lips – a visual rhyme. But mostly his action is repetitive: Pop. Pour. Pop. Pour. The only variation lies in his little dance with the bottle and the varying level of threat that he plays with as he pops each cork into or just above the audience's heads. The performance is also punctuated by audience commentary: someone with a glass tries to signal for more champagne, another complains as a cork hits her, another finds a cork and throws it back at Lopez. Lopez plays with our expectations, while filling slowly, bottle by bottle, the large round fishbowl to the brim.

While pouring the bottles Lopez gets more and more attentive to cleanliness, asking for a mop and wiping up any spills. As he does this we can see his image, inverted in the fishbowl, glowing golden with champagne. At bottle twenty-two the bowl is almost full, and I start to wonder how this will end: will he pass out more champagne to us, the audience? Will the bowl overflow? I am struck by the excess, waste and luxury that I'm witnessing. As the last bottle is shaken, popped and poured, we watch, breath held. It almost fits, sloshing just slightly over the brim. Bowl filled, Lopez rips the letters from his chest – V… I… S… A – and places them in the bowl one by one. They float on top. He takes one sip from the bowl, steps back, grabs a red baseball bat and hits the bowl with all his might.

It shatters.

Champagne splashes and runs across the gallery floor, its rich odor filling the air as the audience scrambles back a little, and the gallery staff come in to prepare for the next performance.

Michael Fernandes, XSpace, Friday October 29, 2010 (NL)

Fernandes sits quietly in the space. An amplifier buzzing and a microphone in front of him. He pauses, a book in his hands, and looks at us. Putting on his glasses he opens a book and slowly, gently, begins to read. Between the human point of view and that of a fairy or a member of the angelic kingdom… One of the main differences is that we live in a world of form and they in a world of life. The words fill the space and we wonder, a bit, what it going on. The book he is reading from is called The Real Book of Fairies by Dora Van Gelder. He continues to read quietly slowly, sitting hunched. A bottle of water at his side, his signature blue bag behind him. To the fairy the tree is a living breathing personality which is expressing itself in the form we see…Most of our world is composed of inanimate things that seem to be dead. Not only are we surrounded by rocks and animals… Ours is a world of objects. But a fairy never experiences anything of this character. He reads to us. We move from a description of the world of fairies – one that is radical ecological in nature – to a description of the fairy itself as a creature with porous boundaries, living in a continuum with the natural world. We are in an impromptu bedtime story session. We are forced to just listen – an odd proposition in such a visual context. At a certain, seemingly arbitrary, point, after thirty or so minutes of reading, he stops. It goes on. He says to us. And then, picking up his things to go, almost as an afterthought he says: It is not political.

He leaves. We clap.

Irma Optimist, Performance Connection, XSpace, Friday October 29, 2010 (NL)

A woman enters the space. Somber, dressed in black. Holds a ball of red ribbon between her cupped hands and bows her head. A moment of solemnity. She then ties a clothesline with the ribbon across the gallery space, a lustrous red line.

This is Irma Optimist, grande dame of Finnish performance art. She is all dressed in black. Black heels, black tights. Black blazer and turtle neck. Stark white hair. She holds up a compact piece of paper, the size of a small boulder, crumpled and roughly painted black. After presenting it to the audience, much as a magician might show his hat for all to see that there is nothing in it, she slowly unfurls it making gentle crumply sounds, revealing a white plane that emerges from within the three dimensional black dot. Continuing to work with the sound of the paper – rustling and crinkling – she eventually works it until it is totally open. Not quite flat, she shows it to us as a drawing. A flag – all white with one black dot. She clothes-pins it to the red ribbon. Another ball is presented and unfurled. She repeats the action. This time the dot is a little lower, our attention brought to the variation of small differences. Repeat again. The unfurled sheets of paper are beautiful, all crumples and shine in the gallery light. She repeats the action seven more times, ten in all, each time presenting the ball and treating us to a soundscape of crumple as we witness the movement of one material – paper – between two states. The pages hang like ink stained laundry. Black on white on white almost completely covering the ribbon's line of red, which now exists only at the edge.

With this action Optimist, a trained mathematician, offers us an experience of points in transformation from three to two dimensions. A point, I am told by my authoritative online sources, is not a thing but a place. The point of the point is that it is a total abstraction. It has no length, no width, no breadth: it has no dimension. As if to emphasize this, all ten pages hung, she approaches with scissors and cuts out the black dots, each cut marked by its own crinkly sound in the quiet gallery space. Dropping the centers one by one to the floor, we are presented with ten hanging voids. Then Optimist hides the scissors in her skirt and pulls each sheet down with a firm tug that sends the clothespins flying. When she is done she places them, one by one, around her neck – a 17th century ruffle grown to comic proportions.

The clarity of each image Optimist offers is striking, the subtlety of detail and the time allotted to each action in perfect balance. The last sheet in place, she bends at the waist while over a loudspeaker she repeats a single word. I can’t quite make it out. Something like “oit” is repeated at regular intervals with increasing echo. I decide that is it, in fact, Optimist saying point: point point point point. As the word resonates and echos, the separate sounds syncopate and then come together. Once distinct, the repetitions merge in progressively closer and closer articulations until they overlap, become one, and stop. While I am certain that this sounding is in some way conceptually tied to the black dots, I am not sure exactly how. I don't need to know, however. I am transfixed by the poetry of the gestures. She rises, takes off the sheets one by one, lays them on top of each other on the floor, and bows.

[all photos by Henry Chan]

Henry Adam Svec, Songs Just For You, XSpace, Friday October 29, 2010 (NL)

In the center of the gallery is a podium lit by a single spotlight. To the left is an open guitar case, guitar inside. Henry Adam Svec comes in and stands behind the podium, dressed in what I would call graduate student garb. Clearing his throat, he begins to lecture us.

The title of my presentation is “Songs Just For You.” Svec offers us a philosophical treatise on authenticity. He distinguishes authenticity from sincerity. He tells us that the authentic includes first and foremost debates about authenticity. He tells us many things about authenticity – assertions, arguments, propositions. Authenticity is always already commodified, Svec tells us. A little jocular. Off the cuff. Be aware of yourself recognizing authenticity, he says, and proceeds to offer a set of humorous binaries. Which one is authentic and which is not? Micky Mouse. Water. We laugh. He proceeds to categorize different types of authenticity, giving the example of being a waiter in an authentic way, in a way that is not just about the job but that is in some way both full and truthful. He talks about being a waiter in a way that reminds me of the 70s feminist performance group The Waitresses (co-founded by Jerri Allyn and Anne Gauldin in 1977) who constituted their waitressing as performance to transform their relation to their daily practice. Is it a lecture? Is it funny? Is it a performance send-up? Is it an implicit critique of authenticity in the context of performance art and its liveness?

I will show you authenticity, Svec says. How does one show authenticity? What is the form proper to authenticity? Like a lecture authenticity is pure content. He then turns to the guitar. Now I will sing songs. In what way will they be authentic? He gives us what seems like a Marxist proposition on unalienated labour, something that is in excess of the commodity form. In that spirit he tells us not only that has he refused his artist fee, but that he is not even who he says he is, and that this performance will never appear on his CV. Furthermore, he says, garnering a laugh, I'm not even enjoying myself!

Svec begins to sing. He stops. I am not drawing your attention to the songs themselves, he says, I am not sure if the songs are authentic, I am bringing your attention to the singing of them. He sings a lonely song called “Don’t.” One line from the song stays with me – although he did tell me not to pay attention to the content: If you think this is just a game I am playing, if you don’t think I mean every word I am saying. The words might as well be a commentary by Svec, as I for one have oscillated between taking him seriously and taking the whole thing as a sly critique.

Svec sings another song, in a beautiful lanky voice, just so you won't be tempted to think that the first one meant something special, he says. Finished, he thanks us for listening and invites us to come and find him with questions.

[all photos by Henry Chan]

Francis O'Shaughnessy & Sara Létourneau, I have nothing to say about my day, XSpace, Friday October 29, 2010 (NL)

We are arranged in the space. Francis O'Shaughnessy tells us where we can sit – there, no further, that is good - and pauses. Sara Létourneau enters with two china teacups, complete with saucers. O'Shaughnessy
takes a pair of scissors and cuts a slit in his shirt. Something is bundled under the fabric, at the bicep. Létourneau puts her knees in the two tea cups – which have a clear liquid in them that I later learn is bleach – and stands, looking at us. She takes bread out of her bra and eats it. He takes bread out of the cut in his sleeve and eats it. They stand. She looks at the audience and he paces, both eating. Stand. Pace. Eat. Look at the audience, impassive. Repeat. It seems almost like a force-feeding, the way they keep on eating the dry bread without swallowing. Their mouths full. She starts to twirl her hair. Standing. Staring. Chewing. He takes out the scissors again and cuts the lock of hair that she has meanwhile twisted and held out. He puts the hair down his pants. This seems to break the monotony of the chewing. Each takes a tea cup and removes it from the saucer, placing it closer to the audience. Then they lean over the saucers, in concert, and open their mouths, dropping the bread balls they've been chewing onto the saucers with a plop. The bread action over, they move the plates to the side. An off-kilter invocation of domestic ennui.

To continue their portrait of dystopic gender relations and family life, Létourneau takes out a spool of red thread and a needle while O'Shaughnessy cleans the floor of breadcrumbs with a paper towel. He then walks slowly across with the cups, filled to the brim with bleach, doing his best not to spill, and places them to the side. Taking out a length of grey yarn, he ties each end to each of the teacup handles. Létourneau meanwhile has threaded five needles to the same thread. He cleans some more with the paper towel while she pins the needles to the wall in the shape of a house. A plaintive drawing against the gallery wall. O'Shaughnessy then undoes his zipper and gropes inside his pants, looking for something. Finally, he pulls out a flower. A daisy. The audience giggles. He does some improvised calisthenics - jumping jacks and push-ups. Bread crumbs are flying from his sleeve, littering the floor he has just cleaned. She stands inside the red-thread house and looks at him. Coyly she takes off her tights. Shoes. He drinks a sip of beer from an audience member. She puts on a pleated skirt. He takes off his T-shirt and puts on a long-sleeved one. Létourneau moves to the center of the space, bringing the thread with her, and O'Shaughnessy lets himself get caught in it. Then, grabbing a large garbage bag from the corner, he kneels behind her. He puts his head up her skirt and she sings How Long Has This Been Going On while he works at doing something up her skirt. Létourneau, the red spool of thread still in her hands, proceeds to wrap a thin line around her waist. As she sings she continues, round and round, the thin red line getting thicker and thicker. I could cry salty tears / Where have I been all these years / A little while, tell me now / How long has this been going on? With her tiny a capella voice and her French Canadian accent, she sings. All the while he continues to work under the skirt. There were chills, up and down my spine / Yes, there're thrills I can't define / Listen sweet, while I repeat / How long has this been going on? He comes out of the skirt, sighs as if exhausted, and removes the bag. Breaking the thread, she throws the spool away.

At this point O'Shaughnessy places a cutout icon of a woman on the floor of the gallery. Turning, he proceeds to Létourneau, who is standing against the wall, in "customs search" position. Again he crawls under her skirt, pierces something, and some white powdery substance comes rushing down, causing many audience members to leave as she jumps and whatever it is – something at least somewhat toxic judging by the audience reaction – billows out into the space. Done, Létourneau stops, stares at the audience, takes off her skirt, and reveals two cans of Comet strapped to her thighs. O'Shaughnessy then takes off his shoes, walks across the space, puts away the woman icon cutout, and grabs the grey yarn holding the cups filled with bleach. Létourneau lies down in front of O'Shaughnessy and, with the yarn across his waist, he walks forward, dragging the cups that are now dripping bleach, while she rolls in front of him in slow motion. When they reach the end of the space they stand together and bow.

[all photos by Henry Chan]

Wednesday, October 27th (d2d), Thursday, October 28th (evening) and Fiday, October 29th (day) 2010 (DB)

 Photo of Chuyia Chia (above) by Henry Chan
Photo of Maurice Blok (below) by Henry Chan
In the early 1980s, Tehching Hsieh conducted his legendary one-year performances, in which he performed a specific symbolic action, or fulfilled a stricture, for the duration of one year.  In one, for instance, he punched a time clock every hour on the hour for a year, carefully documenting the instances in which he failed to do so; in another, he did not enter into any building or shelter for one year. Hsieh’s durational performances are among the greatest, most sublime, and most wholly enigmatic works of performance art, and the ones in which the relationship between art and life is most uncompromisingly examined; they also raise pointed questions about what a work of art is and what a performance is. Does performance need to involve actions of some kind, as I suggested in a previous blog, or can it involve a lack of action, a negative action?  Can it be just a state of being, a kind of mode of existence, rather than an action?  Does it have to be something available to the public, or can it be purely private?  Can it be something that can only be seen in its documentation?

Photos by Henry Chan

Curated by Johanna Householder, the Direct to Documentation features works that can either only be seen through their documentation, or works that were viewed as more interesting in their documentation than as works to be reproduced live in Toronto. Finnish artist Annette Arlander’s “Year of the Rat” is in the tradition of Hsieh’s year-old performances.  For one year, Arlander went every day to the shore in the Bay of Finland and filled and emptied a jug of the water.  In the five minute version, one sees the passing of the year in fast forward: the tides moving in to cover her feet or sliding out, snow covering the rocky shore then melting, the light steely or more generously glowing.  For “The T Project,” American artists Sarah Banasiak and Alexia Mellor rode the subways during the course of the so-called work day from 9 to 5, one of them typing memos on an old fashioned typewriter.  Much of the amusement of the video rests in observing the reactions of the other people. Rachelle Beaudoin’s “Eyelash Extensions” is a prime example of a private performance that’s just slightly off-kilter from ordinary life.  In it, we find Beaudoin using tweezers to glue lengths of her hair to the tips of her eyelashes, with predictably goofy results. Myk Henry’s “Time Out,” on the other hand, is a purely public performance, one that of course could never take place in a gallery at all.  For  “Time Out,” Henry stops a street car in the middle of rush hour in Geneva by tripping and spilling a whole shopping bag full of pasta.  He picks up his groceries as slowly as possible, literally crawling under the streetcar to get every last piece.  In the meantime, the streetcar driver and it passengers are becoming increasingly agitated at being made late.  Myk steadfastly remains in front of the streetcar, occasionally crawling back under it to look for more lost groceries, arguing with the driver, with the jeering passengers, with angry people in the massive traffic jam he has caused, with outraged passersby.  He does this for approximately three minutes (this performances clocks in at exactly 3:01) then desists, letting the relentless flow of city traffic resume.  Myk’s piece sharply underscores the inflated and accelerated speed of urban time.  It is remarkable how much disruption Myk’s performance at least looks like it caused—and it only took three minutes.  Was anyone actually going anywhere that was all that important?

One of the finest pieces in the Direct to Documentation screening was the beautiful and enigmatic “How to Feed a Piano,” a kind of tribute to Fluxus composer Lamonte Young’s “Compositions 1960s” by Canadian artists Candice Hopkins and David Khang. It opens with a grand piano set atop a wooden platform, Khang shoveling hay into the piano while Hopkins plays, the notes muted, skittish, and erratic.  Eventually Khang himself crawls into the piano, presumably manipulating its strings.  Later the lower part of the platform on which the piano is set is opened to reveal a full-grown work horse.  Khang is off to the side, privately meditating.  He is then covered with blue paint, attached to the horse like a plow, and dragged over the floor, creating long, swishing blue streaks, in a clear allusion to Yves Klein’s body painting performances of the 1960s. (Unlike Hopkins’ and Khang’s, Klein’s performances were intensely ironical fashion statements—there was a small orchestra playing, the performers were beautiful young women, the blue, of course, perfect Klein blue). Swedish performers Elin Lungren and Petter Pettersson’s “Turkey’s Nest” involved the artists wearing a big wolf’s head and a bear’s head respectively. While Lungren, decked out in a summer dress and high heels (wolf’s are fashionable and sexy, after all), dances to imaginary music, while Pettersson laboriously moves bread rolls from one huge pile to another. Sophia New’s uncanny “When no-one was looking I snuck back stage” is close to being abstract.  A jump rope with blue, then red, then white light projected onto it loops against a black background, its whooping sounds loud, the jumper invisible.  Occasionally the rope falters, as though becoming entangled in someone’s feet; occasionally the silhouette of the person jumping rope flashes onto the rope as though from a distance.

Tehching Hsieh’s epic performances raised the question of what counts as a performance and pushed the relationship between art and existence to its limit. This year’s Eminence Gris Michael Fernandes’ series of performances outside of the Toronto Free Gallery in and around Lansdowne and Bloor raised similar questions, but in a more intimate, one might even say lyrical mode.  Unlike in the Karen Spencer episode reported on in the previous blog, this time I actually knew what Fernandes looks like when I showed up at Bloor and Lansdowne yesterday afternoon—lanky, and with a long, sinuous face and long grey hair, bald at the top.  I saw him cross Bloor and head up the street carrying a blue bag.  I figured he would be back, so I brought a cup of coffee and settling in at the street corner and waited.  A pair of African men bantered with each other in French outside of their barbershop. A crack addict in an oversized sweatshirt sped furiously back and forth in front of me. Women pushed huge strollers along the sidewalk.  Occasionally someone stumbled out of one of the cafés where one can drink cheap beer and stare at ancient television sets all day. Eventually, I grew bored and walked up the street and found Fernandes nursing a cup of coffee in a bakery.  Not wanting to disturb him, I retreated to the bus stop to wait and see what happened.  School was out and mobs of high school age kids spilled up out of the subway, the boys in their cheap baggy jeans and knock off sneakers shouting slogans at each other and smacking each other's backs, the girls elaborately made up as though exiting the velvet rope of a nightclub staring at their cell phones with withering contempt. One girl kept shouting over and over into her phone, “I am not a slut, I am not a slut, I am not a slut, bitch, I am not a slut…” Eventually Fernandes left the bakery and crossed the street, and I thought, now something is going to happen! He entered a convenience store; I continued to wait. At some point a young OCAD student, apparently directed to me by a representative of 7a*11d, approached me (I was standing in the shelter at the top of the subway stairs) and asked, “Do you know where Michael Fernandes’ performance is?,” and I said “He’s over in that convenience store, maybe he’s doing something there!”  So we walked over to the convenience store, and, inevitably, he had disappeared.  Later, it struck me that virtually anything he did might have counted as the performance: sitting in the coffee shop, crossing the street, going into a convenience store, disappearing.  And of course my looking for him might have been part of the performance too.

I am not sure Fernandes ever actually “did” or “performed” everything, and the more I searched for a performance or an action, the less I really understood what such things are.

Thursday evening at Xpace featured five powerful examples of performance art, all of them symbolically potent, and all of them exploiting the visceral immediacy of being present to something live and which will, in my view, always give live performance qualities unavailable in documentation. (Even live absence can be weirdly visceral: in Chris Burden’s piece of the late 1970s when he holed himself up in a construction with monitors attached to his hard, his presence was electric).

 Photos of Chuyia Chia by Henry Chan

For her performance, Chuyia Chia appeared dressed in white, a larger rectangle of paper hanging from the ceiling at the end of the stage, a metal bowl, a blender, a knife, a bottle of oil, and a Styrofoam box on the floor.  She ceremoniously washed her hands, put on a pair of gloves and a plastic butcher’s cap.  From the Styrofoam box she took a whole fish, long and blue finned, and, caressing it lovingly, she cradled it like a baby, carrying it around and presenting it to the audience.  She then placed it below the hanging sheet of paper and packed its sides with ice.  She then took the bottle of oil and squirted it at the paper, creating a stained, bleeding drawing that itself resembled an ornamental fish.  Next, Chia set to gutting the large fish, first placing its viscera into the blender, then chunks of the fish, grinding it bones and all into a puree. Using her hands, she shoveled the puree into the metal bowl, carrying handfuls of the ground fish around for the audience to smell. As anyone who has spent any time in fish markets or the docks in fishing villages, fish have a peculiarly potent and to some sickening smell, and this is smell is released with even greater intensity when it is ground up, but it is also fascinating: it is a smell that makes one think of the deep, liquefied, unformed, raw inside of living things.  Some in the audience covered their noses; others looked like they were about to gag; others inhaled with gusto.  Chia then began hurling handfuls of the fish at the paper, creating an explosive, reeking painting of fish and oil that the audience was invited to join in.  Chia’s performance clearly quoted similar performances using animal blood by the Vienna Actionists, but Chia’s performance was not about violence or the expiation of history; it seemed, rather, to involve an affirmation of the unmediated substances of the world, and the way they can be compromised.

 Photos of Maurice Blok by Henry Chan

Dutch artist Maurice Blok’s performance, on the other hand, was an intricate unbalancing act, a kind of symbolist Buster Keaton routine.  On the floor were boards, chairs, a carton of cream, glasses, a bowl, a pitcher, a trash bag full of bouquets of flowers.  He began dipping his socked feet in a bowl of water, then taking his socks off and drying his feet.  He swallowed cream and dribbled the cream out in a remarkably accurate circle, then placed chairs at the two ends of the circle.  Placing a board across the two chairs, he clambering up onto the rickety construction, which looked like it might collapse at any moment, and attempted to pour cream into a glass set below, with little success.  He tore open a cardboard box and wore it as a kind of dress; he free fell sideways, thudding onto the ground; he shook flower petals into the audience. In the performance's final passages, he set a board and blocks of wood up as a kind of teeter-totter with flowers at one end, and sat in a chair at the opposite end.  He then tilted back in the chair until he fell, vaulting the flowers up into the air. Blok’s performance was about the delicate relationship between balance and imbalance, between rising and falling, and the cheap, ragged bouquets gave it a kind of clownish exuberance and lyricism.

Photos of Agnes Negregard by Henry Chan:

Norwegian artist Agnes Nedregard’s performance, on the other hand, was all intensity. A board hanging on a rope from the ceiling and a board with two holes on the ground, she began by placing a mouthpiece in her mouth that held it open grotesquely, her tongue poking out. A metronome ticked to one side. She blew a whistle.  She took her rubber boots off and prowled past the audience in stockings full of dirt and rocks, scowling.  She then took her jacket off, revealing an old shirt ripped loose down the front between her breasts.  Using needle and thread, she then began sewing the flaps of the shirt to the sides of her breasts and chest.  She approached individual audience members, staring at them intensely, then pierced the needle through her skin, pulling the thread tight. She blew the whistle again.  The metronome continued to tick.  She fit her legs through the holes in the board on the ground.,  and set herself on the one hanging from the ceiling, gazing, again, with a blank intensity at the audience.  Then she suddenly leaped off the board, and it snapped back up toward the ceiling, swinging.  The performance ended with her putting her jacket and boots back on and stopping the metronome, whose ticking by then permeated the room. Nedregard’s performance might seem to be about the denial of the body, and of women’s bodies in particular, but it struck me as too physically intimate and present for that; it seemed to me more about the fragility and instability of the body as it exists in time, where time, through the metronome, has become an active, physical, literal part of the performance.

Photos of Chen Jin by Henry Chan

Chinese artist Chen Jin’s  performance begins with a standard map of the world—the kind one might find on the wall of a child’s room—spread out on the ground. On his hands and knees, Jin began kissing the countries, the continents, Asia, Africa, North America, Antarctica.  Carrying a box of big, carpenter’s nails, he climbed up to the top of a ladder and began tossing the nails onto the map, some of the nails settling on the map, others scattering out onto the concrete floor.  Once the box was empty, he climbed back down, spread the nails more or less evenly, democratically, over the surface of the map and fit a sheet of glass over it.  On top of the sheet of glass he poured milk, the milk flowing out over the edges of the glass, pooling on the floor.  At that point he broke open a packet of cherry tomatoes and began arranging them on the top of the milk-covered glass.  Shuttling back and forth to check spelling and the shape of letters (Jin’s English is shaky), he gradually arranged them into the shape of a red, somewhat goofy “Peace.”  Standing back, Jin looked pleased.  With a rubber ball that itself looked like a globe and which glittered and flashed, he bounced the ball and strolled, not gaily, now uneasily, around his construction.  And then, without warning, he hurled the ball against the glass, shattering, opening up a kind of wound of milk-spattered nails clotted over the map, the tomatoes rolling everywhere.  Jin’s piece is a layered construction, of love, good will, violence, and naivete, reminding us perhaps how fragile and fractal and unpredictable the way we shape the world ultimately is.

Our everyday relationship to time and the world is skittish, fragmented, hurried.  The great appeal of monasticism for many, whether it is Buddhist or Christian, is that it both radically simplifies the objects of consciousness and dramatically slows consciousness of time.  Performance artists who work with durational pieces are, in a way, the monks of the art world. Tehching Hsieh being perhaps the most rigorous among them. Martine Viale’s durational piece in the basement of Xpace consisted largely of her filling small plastic packets with a a few drops of sky-blue ink and arranging them in a gradually expanding rectangle on the concrete floor.  The color itself is strangely beautiful, small, gelatinous. Her face tattooed with lines the same color of blue, Vial went about the task of arranging the packets with a slow, silent, fatalistic precision, as though she were embodying a kind of cosmic necessity.  By the second night of her performance, she had expanded her operations, setting up a table for dripping the blue into the little packets.  Behind her were curious charts marking the emotional trajectory of her performance.

Photos of Sylvie Tourangeau (left) and Claudia Wittmann (right) by Henry Chan

Sylvie Tourangeau and Claudia Wittmann’s performance in the rough backroom at The Toronto Free Gallery was not a durational piece per se (though it could have been), but it shared some crucial characteristics with durational works.  Pieces like those of, say, Maurice Blok and Chuyia Chia, and Chin Jen, for instance, rely in part on the symbolic resonance of the objects their performances involve as well as on the sequence of actions.  The these are hardly narrative works, they are pieces that need to have an ending—we, as viewers or critics, would have a strong sense if they went on too long, or if they ended too early and seemed incomplete.  Viale’s piece is so reduced in its elements and iterations that it has no real ending other than an arbitrary physical one; I could easily imagine her going on for days or even weeks, filling up the entire basement with packets of blue, moving on to the basements of neighboring buildings.  Tourangeau and Wittmann’s performance is one without a natural ending for a different reason: it was driven by relational process activated between the performers themselves as well as the space they were performing in that need not have ever wholly exhausted itself. Sometimes they were on the ground, twisting in parallel contraposition, moaning, birthing being given birth; other times they tilted against each other in delicate balance; still other times they seemed to have been dropped into a kind of primordial dream space. Normally we think of consciousness as somehow inside of bodies, directing them like the captains of ships, to use Descartes’ famous metaphor from The Meditation; here they became a kind of corporal consciousness, continuously shifting in relation to one another.