In Memoriam: Aiyyana Maracle

September 28 2016

Written By Paul Couillard

Aiyyana Maracle, ndn wars are alive, and ... well? Gallery Lambton Sarnia 2010 PHOTO Hailey McHarg
Aiyyana Maracle, ndn wars are alive, and … well? Gallery Lambton Sarnia 2010 PHOTO Hailey McHarg

Aiyyana Maracle | November 25, 1950 — April 24, 2016

Aiyyana Maracle was a fierce soul with a gentle but powerful voice. In “A Journey in Gender,” an article published in torquere,[1] Aiyyana described herself as “a transformed woman who loves women,” her way of steering readers toward a decolonized understanding of her gender and sexuality.[2] In the article, she argues for an Indigenous perspective of a multiplicity of gender identifications, suggesting that in most traditional Indigenous cultures, those whose gender fell outside the strict confines of a male/female binary were recognized as both socially and spiritually integral to their culture, valued for their unique insights. She writes, “We were healers, people of medicine, we were storytellers, seers and visionaries, artists and artisans—we were among the keepers of the culture.”[3] Aiyyana was both a keeper and a maker of culture, asserting her own voice and place within contemporary North America through her art practice, and facilitating the voices of others through her curatorial, directorial and activist roles and projects.

Aiyyana was her own unique story-crafter and storyteller, in ways that give me pause as I seek to honour her by sharing my own memories of her. I am aware of the vigilance with which she scrutinized all stories’ ability to redistribute power. The life she claimed as an Indigenous, transformed woman often required her to negotiate a contradictory and confrontational path, where her many triumphs, accolades and accomplishments were weighed against a stinging set of rebukes, exclusions and adversities. Viewing her journey from outside—telling my own story of her story—what strikes me is her remarkable ability to repeatedly adapt, transform and create new circumstances to nurture a dynamic but ever-deepening and hard-won personal sense of authenticity. She was, as one of her friends described her, “a warrior in a skirt.”[4]

Aiyyana framed her various transformations in relation to an ongoing process of decolonization. Born a “boy” on Six Nations territory in southern Ontario, Aiyyana grew up in the urban settings of Rochester and Buffalo, because her parents were forced off reserve when her father was not recognized as a status Indian. Her parents worked hard to assimilate themselves and their children into a Eurocentric and Christian culture—which Aiyyana came to understand as a very practical survival strategy—but, in her own words, “the whispers from the Grandmothers told me who we were, and I resisted that [assimilation] mightily.”[5] Similar whispers eventually also supported her transition from male (after having fathered and raised multiple children through two marriages) to female in the early ’90s.

I first met Aiyyana holding court—there really is no better description for it—at the kitchen table of grunt Gallery in Vancouver, where she played an integral part in nurturing a burgeoning contemporary native art scene. She struck me then as a strong woman very much in her element, exerting her influence and contributing to the development of a vibrant, evolving community in a myriad of both subtle and strident ways. She was generous yet uncompromising, forceful but also vulnerable. Years later, I remember meeting with her at her apartment, where she gave me a careful look up and down before pronouncing that she trusted me enough to allow me to produce her work. By posing the possibility of a working relationship in this admittedly imperious manner, she was making clear that for her, producing performance art was no casual matter of simply providing entertainment or furthering career goals: it was a sacred passion that should only be entrusted to thoughtful and respectful contexts.

I was eventually responsible for producing two iterations of a performance Aiyyana titled ndn wars are alive, and … well? The first version was presented as part of FADO’s IDea series in Toronto’s Trinity Bellwoods Park in 2006 in the context of the 7a*11d International Festival of Performance Art. The work had two key components. First, a looped documentary videotape, compiled by Aiyyana Maracle with La Mathilde, chronicled the troubled relationship between the Crown and Canada’s Indigenous populations, pointing to the ongoing resistance to a colonial, settler occupation that most non-Indigenous Canadians imagine to be simply a matter of historical record. For the Toronto version, the videotape was projected large onto the grassy slope of a hill, and on a smaller scale, onto the side of a white tent erected on the grounds. The second element was Aiyyana’s presence. Appearing in various animal masks, Aiyyana manifested a shadowy figure against the night backdrop, a trickster presence darting among the trees or silhouetted on the ridge of the hill. Eventually, Aiyyana appeared as a human figure and began a slow spiral dance across a large section of ground. Although Toronto was not a traditional Mohawk territory, this slow, careful choreography offered a pointed assertion of Indigenous presence on contested land. Ethereal, almost ghostly, the image of Aiyyana stepping and sounding left a lasting imprint. Certainly this occupation was symbolic, metaphorical, but it was also undeniably material: an Indigenous body claiming both a physical territory and a cultural space of ritual in a location thought to be fully governed and policed by (post?)colonial infrastructures. The image she created has always had ambiguous resonances for me. Looking through one set of eyes, I see a lonely, ephemeral figure conjured up out of a cold, windswept night, like a ghost of a past that never quite existed. At the same time, I also feel a powerful medicine, an insistence that as long as even one figure can persist in calling up this dance, in renewing a claim of resistance, the questions of dominance and territory that haunt our country remain unsettled and demand renegotiation. The playful appearance of the masked figures leaves a lingering sense of exhilaration; the sombre, determined dancer, a sense of dignified sobriety.

The second version of this performance was presented outside Gallery Lambton (now moved and renamed the Judith & Norman ALIX Art Gallery) in Sarnia in 2010 as part of a performance event called Present Response. This piece was staged quite differently, presented from the early evening to dusk of a gloomy, occasionally rainy spring day. The video was again prominent, projected onto a brick wall behind the artist, slowly becoming visible as the sky darkened, and also playing on a monitor installed to one side of the outdoor tableau. Aiyyana’s presence was confined to a narrow patch of sod temporarily laid down in a fenced-off area beside the walkway leading up to the gallery. Dotting the grass were rows of miniature flags, sporting symbols of the Six Nations. Over the course of the three-hour performance, these flags were decimated by a white male figure sporting a weed whacker while Aiyyana, an imposing, silent presence dressed in a colourful robe, stood her ground at the far end of the space. Sarnia, traditionally Chippewa territory, is no less marked by colonial possession than Toronto. In this version of Aiyyana’s ndn wars…, what we have come to see as the ‘normal’ status of an ordinary urban space—the entrance to a gallery and a shopping mall, part of the downtown geography of a long-established Canadian city—was reconfigured to reveal another part of its human history, to bear witness to an ownership status that, however widely accepted and normalized, remains contested. And if only the faintest traces of the projection could be detected against the backdrop of Aiyyana’s body and the brick wall beside her, does this not also speak to the underlying question—of what we are able to see of what is, even if invisible, nevertheless there?

By the time Aiyyana presented the first version of the work in 2006, she had left Vancouver and taken up an unpaid position as a Visiting Scholar at McGill University in Montreal. In 2010, when she presented the second version, she had returned to the Six Nations reservation where she had been born, on the Grand River near Ohsweken in southern Ontario. Each of these moves required a corresponding reinvention of her self-image. Neither of these transitions was easy, and she struggled with both financial and mental health challenges. Despite these adversities, she managed to cultivate close familial and community ties, living with one of her sons and becoming an important advocate for trans and gender nonconforming youth. She became the co-facilitator of Gender Journey, a peer support group run out of the Grand River Community Health Centre. She was also a proud great-grandmother several times over. Respectful of the capital-G Grandmothers who oversaw her journey, she also brought a deep sense of commitment and sensitivity to her own role as a grandmother and elder. Commenting on the role she found herself inhabiting in this period of her life, she reflected, “There is no mirror for who I am. From necessity I became the mirror for all the younger ones.”[6]

Aiyyana’s adaptability and resilience reflected her understanding that we as humans, and the cultures we create, are always evolving. In her own words—words she not only wrote but also found ways to embody and live by—

For people and culture to survive, they need to evolve continually. What we as Indigenous people need to do is scrape off the stagnated scum from the culture in which we presently find ourselves immersed, pick up the residue of our historic cultures, and reblend the cultural pattern of who we really are today by following the roots inherent in the laws, values, and principles embodied in the old ways. This we need to do so that our grandchildren may find their way through to tomorrow with their humanity intact.[7]

—Paul COUILLARD

[1] This now-defunct scholarly journal was published in the late 1990s and early 2000s by the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Studies Association / Société Canadienne des études Lesbiennes et Gaies. For more information, see http://torquere.journals.yorku.ca/index.php/torquere/index.

[2] Maracle, Aiyyana, “A Journey in Gender,” torquere 2 (2000): 36-57, p. 36. http://torquere.journals.yorku.ca/index.php/torquere/article/view/36587/33238

[3] Ibid., p. 41.

[4] Ibid., p. 55.

[5] Interview on Tranzister Radio 29, CKUT 90.3 FM, October 9, 2014. https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B0KGgCD3_zjTMjVXT2ZvM1J0VnM

[6] Colleen Toms, “Six Nations woman shares her transgender experience,” Brant News, January 19, 2015. http://www.brantnews.com/news-story/5264793-six-nations-woman-shares-her-transgender-experience/

[7] “A Journey in Gender,” p. 49.

Aiyyana Maracle & Paul Couillard in conversation, 7a*11d 2006 opening night PHOTO Henry Chan
Aiyyana Maracle & Paul Couillard in conversation, 7a*11d 2006 opening night PHOTO Henry Chan

Aiyyana Maracle was a multidisciplinary artist, scholar and educator, sovereign Haudenosaunee woman and great-grandma many times over. She spent a half-century actively infusing Ogwehoweh art and culture into the Eurocentric consciousness of Canadian society. A powerful activist and advocate on many fronts, her work dealt with a range of issues, from indigenous land claims to trans identity. Through performance art, video, theatre (where she was awarded the prestigious John Hirsch Prize for emerging theatre directors in 1997), writing, and lecturing, Aiyyana offered an alternate framework to the prevalent Eurocentric view of ‘gender dysphoria,’ eventually becoming a voice and activist for young trans or gender nonconforming individuals on Six Nations reserve on the Grand River.

Aiyyana was featured in the 6th 7a*11d International Festival of Performance Art in 2006 as part of the FADO series IDea.

 

In Memoriam: Rachel Rosenthal

September 21 2016

Written By Paul Couillard

Rachel Rosenthal PHOTO David Kennedy
Rachel Rosenthal PHOTO David Kennedy

Rachel Rosenthal | November 9, 1926 – May 10, 2015

Going to see Rachel Rosenthal’s Gaia, Mon Amour in Ottawa in 1984 changed my life, prompting me to become both an artist and a vegetarian. Rachel’s activist performance work showed me that art could be used to care both about and for the world. Most importantly, she revealed to me the transformative possibilities of performance. More than anything, what she conveyed to me was the urgent necessity of approaching this life with respectful courage. Rachel was a brilliant and inspirational presence, profoundly loving, concerned, thoughtful, and uncompromising. Yet it was no secret that she often found humans—herself included—to be an obstinate, exasperating and extremely dangerous breed, and that she generally preferred the company of nonhuman sentient beings—The Others, as she called them in one of her many politically and personally charged works. Animals and the earth were her great passions. She was deeply committed to sounding the alarm about how humans are destroying our planet, warning us that our vast power as a species is only surpassed by our ignorance and arrogance.

I was fortunate enough to know Rachel in a variety of contexts: as an audience member, as one of her students, as a producer of her workshops and performances, as a colleague, and as a friend. A master practitioner of the time-honoured mentor/apprentice relationship, Rachel schooled more than one generation of artists, myself included. Aside from calling me to artistry, she provided me with an invaluable education and encouraged the development of my career. After I studied with her in Los Angeles, for example, she wrote me a recommendation letter that was crucial to my first successful grant application.

When I brought Rachel to Ottawa to present an intensive series of workshops with the local community in 1989, she stayed in my home. Every evening we would discuss what had happened in the workshop that day, her observations interspersed with stories of her own past: her Paris childhood, where artists like Jascha Heifetz and Marc Chagall were not uncommon guests at the dinner table; her early adulthood in New York, where she shared a studio with Jap (Jasper Johns) and Bob (Robert Rauschenberg); her move to Los Angeles after being encouraged by her friend John (Cage)… What was deeply empowering for me was the way she referred to these legendary figures exactly the same way she talked about the participants in the workshops. For her, our ideas, our struggles, our achievements were just as engaging and worthy of consideration as those of her more famous peers. We were all artists, and her stories were generously encouraging lessons from someone who knew too well the challenges of battling insecurity and developing self-respect. She was already close to 50 before the feminist movement taught her that the terms ‘woman’ and ‘artist’ were not mutually exclusive, and so she could be both. Having inhabited self-doubt so thoroughly, one of her greatest skills and gifts as a teacher was encouraging others to believe in themselves and in the possibilities open to them.

Although it was through performance art that she finally achieved a certain level of international fame, her most fundamental inspiration came from Antonin Artaud’s The Theatre and Its Double. Artaud’s book provided the blueprint she needed to craft an original form for her protean talents, which spanned a gamut of disciplines (performer, director, visual artist, writer, teacher). Her technically proficient and dramatically accomplished solo performance works were always richly theatrical: carefully scripted, populated with intense and compelling personas, and offering a dense layering of lighting, projections, soundtracks, costumes and props. At the root of her virtuosity, however, was an array of improvisational techniques and exercises that she had pioneered, which also provided the basis for her classes and workshops. Long before she became a famous performance artist, she was an important figure in California’s experimental underground art scene in the 1950s and ’60s, directing and performing with her improvisational theatre company, Instant Theatre. Those early performances, crafted around the classic literary canon of fairy tales and fables, were never documented, but their legacy continues in the ongoing work of The Rachel Rosenthal Company, an improvisationally based performance art troupe drawn from her students and nurtured through her artistic vision.

Rachel’s classes were often a sounding board for the ideas that were central to the performances she was working on at the time. When I studied with her in the mid 1980s, Rachel was musing about the potential of performance artists as modern-day, secular shamans. Human civilizations have always had institutions and rituals to help them feel connected: to each other, to the land and creatures that surround and sustain us—and indeed, that we are a part of; and to a larger sense of the cosmos. The need to feel and make meaning of these relationships on a corporeal level, in our bones and flesh, did not disappear with the tidy mind/body split of the Enlightenment era. But what part of our culture now fulfils such a role and provides us with a collective sense of belonging? It is doubtful that an entertainment ‘industry’ tailor-made for a capitalist infrastructure offers the best model for addressing this essential human need. There is a yawning social gap across modern societies, and Rachel encouraged her students to think about how they might address this through their work. While most contemporary constructions of performance art tend to trace the form’s roots back to early 20th Century avant garde art movements. Rachel was interested in a much older and more expansive cultural lineage.

In 2000, 7a*11d sponsored a residency project with Rachel in Toronto. Because this was an expensive event, FADO was brought on as a co-producer. Originally scheduled for 1999 as the festival’s first “off-year” project after we switched to a biennial format, the residency had to be rescheduled after Rachel developed pneumonia. This was a major project for both 7a*11d and FADO, and Rachel brought with her an entourage of technical crew to manage her show and document her work. During her visit, she conducted master classes for local artists and presented a two-day run of a major new work, UR-BOOR. In fact, Toronto was the last leg of the production’s tour and the site of her final performance on a public stage. Although she continued to teach and to direct her company, the event marked her retirement from solo performance.

This is one of two production footnotes to Rachel’s career that I played a part in. I was also the only person ever to produce her 3-day, 35-hour DbD Workshop outside of Los Angeles. Considered one of her signature activities, DbD (also the name of her performance studio, Espace DbD: the name originated from a beloved cat, Dibidi, but also came to stand for “doing by doing,” which she felt was an apt description of her method) was widely hailed as a powerful transformative event for artists and non-artists alike. Beginning on a Friday evening with a 6-hour opening session, and continuing through two 14-and-a-half hour sessions on Saturday and Sunday, the workshop was designed as a personal and collective journey through guided meditations, exercises and improvisations. Carefully structured yet always infused with the unique energy of the assembled group, the experience was accurately described by Linda Burnham as a “mind/body spa.”[1] One did not have to be an artist to participate, but the secret of the DbD workshop’s transformative success was its crafting of a collective art-making process.

Like her performances, which were often infused with a kind of shimmering luminosity, Rachel’s workshops and classes felt like a natural breeding ground for the kind of heart-stopping and time-stopping moments that become etched into one’s memory as definitional, legendary. Rachel had her own phrase for these moments, especially when, during a “blow-it-out-your-ass” improv (her name for the madcap group sessions that she often used to end a class), serendipity would bring together an unlikely, unpredictable but astonishingly affective confluence of actions and images: “The djinn are with us,” she would say. Hers was a kind of magic that few can conjure, let alone teach, If she was not a djinni herself, surely Rachel spent a great deal of her time in their company.[2]

—Paul COUILLARD

[1] Linda Burnham, “The DBD Experience. Rachel Rosenthal’s Mind/Body Spa: A Bath for the Soul,” High Performance 7:2 (1984): 52-53.

[2] The details of this text are based on my own recollections of and conversations with Rachel, but there are many books, articles, interviews and recordings documenting her life and work. For those interested in getting a sense of her voice, I particularly recommend a remarkable oral history interview with Rachel by Moira Roth, recorded in September of 1989 and available in both audio and text transcript formats in the Archives of American Art: aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-rachel-rosenthal-13200

Rachel Rosenthal PHOTO Annie Leibovitz
Rachel Rosenthal PHOTO Annie Leibovitz

Born in Paris, Rachel Rosenthal’s talents spanned a gamut of disciplines (performer, director, visual artist, writer, teacher). First recognized as an underground personality for her experimental Instant Theatre company, then becoming an important figure in the Los Angeles women’s art movement of the 1970s, she eventually gained international fame as a performance artist and as the Artistic Director of the Rachel Rosenthal Company. Her pioneering work integrated a total theatrical experience with committed, urgent messages, creating an unforgettable live art experience. An N.E.A. and J. Paul Getty Foundation Fellow, the recipient of numerous awards including an Obie, and declared a Living Cultural Treasure by the City of Los Angeles, Rosenthal was also a powerful environmental and animal rights activist. Rachel Rosenthal was featured in a special artist residency cosponsored by 7a*11d and FADO in 2000.

In Memoriam: Frank Green

September 2 2016

Written By Paul Couillard

Frank Green, Anonymous Test Site 7a*11d 1997 VIDEO STILL
Frank Green, Anonymous Test Site 7a*11d 1997 VIDEO STILL

Frank Green | July 28, 1957 – January 23, 2013

Frank Green—activist, writer, arts critic and performance artist—died in 2013 at the age of 55. Online obituaries pointedly identify the cause of his death as being complications due to AIDS. But how to unpack the paradox behind those words?

When Frank Green appeared in the first 7a*11d International Festival of Performance Art in 1997, he had a reputation as an HIV warrior. Using performance art as his platform, he questioned the causal links between HIV and AIDS in his widely toured work, The Scarlet Letters, bravely submitting his own body into the public record as his primary dissenting evidence. His story was a powerful one: HIV-positive from the mid 1980s (and in retrospect, how could it have been otherwise, given his personal history as a bisexual drug addict in New York City?), he had watched many of his friends and colleagues die of AIDS, and had become depressed and sick himself as he laboured under the grim, seemingly inevitable diagnosis that “HIV=AIDS=Death.” Then, surprisingly, he had come to his senses, shrugged off this death sentence, and returned to health.[1] His conclusion: it was not the virus that had been making him sick, but a belief in his own powerlessness in the face of it. More than anything, he refused the status and stigma of victimhood, and for a long time, he was buoyed by that refusal. It took nearly two decades for the particular HIV strain in his body to trigger a life-threatening illness, and another decade before he finally succumbed to a version of the equation that he had so vehemently challenged.

In deference to the smart, witty, and frequently sarcastic Frank Green I met in 1997, I defy those who would read his story as one of simple tragedy or ignorance. He was certainly not wrong to suggest that the medical establishment of the 1980s and ’90s did not have a complete picture of either HIV or AIDS; nor was he wrong to question why so many seemed to die so quickly of AIDS while others with an HIV-positive diagnosis could live symptom-free for years. He was certainly not wrong to be wary of the catastrophic effects that early treatment protocols involving largely untested drugs and uncertain dosages had on a generation of gay men. Given the profound shortcomings of the care available at the time, Green’s focus on self-healing reflected a highly rational impulse of self-preservation. Most importantly, he was quick to recognize that his HIV status gave him a very particular perspective that was both useful and instructive for revealing the various politics underlying science, medicine, and public and personal health.

By 1997, he had moved on from making autobiographical work about his own HIV status, and was taking a closer look at the social and power dynamics of the patient-doctor interface. The work he presented in Toronto, entitled Anonymous Test Site, offered an interactive experience that replicated, ad absurdum, the process of being tested for an undefined contagion. Green enlisted two Cleveland colleagues and several Toronto performers[2] suited in latex gloves and surgical masks to enact various clinical roles—intaking the audience as “patients,” administering questionaires, collecting fingernail clippings and scrapings, and directing participants to waiting areas—until finally, the hapless test subjects would be led, one at a time, into a small room. There, they were handcuffed in a kneeling position to a metal bar and left alone in the dark, to await “the doctor”—played by Frank himself. He would appear, direct a glaring light toward the subject’s face, and proceed to offer vague (and vaguely sinister) advice on hygiene and public comportment to be followed while the participant awaited a diagnosis, promised to be delivered a few weeks hence once the samples had been analyzed. Released from the handcuffs, the chastened subject would then be sent away in this unsettled and inconclusive state.

If the tone of Anonymous Test Site was cynical, it nevertheless had an earnest and urgent quality in its insistence on placing the bodies of its audiences into a simulated line of fire that has been—and continues to be—familiar to too many of us. By satirizing the testing process, Green hoped to push his audiences to a more critical and assertive stance in relation to medical practices. We can be so quick to give away our agency in the face of authority, so ill equipped to assert our self-knowledge and lived bodily experience in relation to established medical discourses, so easily mesmerized or silenced by the institutional langauges and procedures of health care systems. However much may have changed in terms of western medicine’s understanding and treatment of HIV infection, Green’s parody of the interface between patients and the health system remains eerily apt.

Though I did not know then that Anonymous Test Site would be Green’s last major performance art project, as an organizer of 7a*11d, I considered us fortunate to be able to produce this ambitious work and to host such an energetic and charismatic artist. Our first festival was an ad hoc affair, put together on a shoestring budget. Frank’s agreement to participate was an important gesture of support on the part of an established artist who valued our initiative and recognized our potential. Coming from Cleveland, he also provided us, at least in my mind, with a link to what was then one of the collective’s key inspirations: the Cleveland Performance Art Festival.[3] I remember remarking to Frank how lucky he must feel to be working in a city with such an important, established venue for presenting performance work. Ever the incisive critic, Frank noted that in his view, the Cleveland festival was, at best, a mixed blessing. Rather than providing an engine for generating local activity, he felt the festival had produced the opposite effect. By taking up all of the available resources for alternative art production, the festival had made it difficult for any other performance art venues to develop, effectively killing any sense of a grassroots scene.

Having never been to Cleveland, I cannot say whether or not Frank’s assessment was an accurate one; but I never forgot his comments. In fact, they have had a lasting influence on my mindfulness as a performance organizer and curator. Undoubtedly, they have informed how I have contributed toward the shaping of 7a*11d’s development[4] within a larger artistic ecosystem.

Although Frank died well over three years ago, I only learned the news recently, as I was tracking down artist permissions for 7a*11d’s new online video archive of performance documentation. Revisiting Green’s connection to 7a*11d, I cannot help but feel a complex, untidy swirl of conflicting emotions. Frank’s story stands at the intersection of two potent influences that have shaped my own history: performance art and AIDS. One has been an endless source of adventure and enrichment for me, while the other has produced an irreconcilable deluge of loss. One points to the blessings of ephemerality as an infinitely bountiful and joyously unpredictable generator of presence, of meaning, and of lore—while the other points to ephemerality’s perils as a relentless annihilator that seems to take away all the best lives and moments too soon.

Green, who managed to secure a number of productive and engaged post-addiction, post-diagnosis years of life for himself would, I am certain, have us direct our attention toward ephemerality’s blessings. Certainly his example does. I salute the ambitious passion for life, the uncompromising directness, the keen intelligence, and the embracing sociability he shared with us.

—Paul COUILLARD


[1] For his own account of this journey, see Frank Green, “Resisting Victim Status: Art Against Medical Nemesis,” Journal of Medical Humanities 19: 2/3 (1998): 127-131.

[2] Thea Miklowski and Holly Wilson traveled with Green from Cleveland, and were joined by local artists Michelle Allard, Churla Burla, Lucia Cino, and Curtis MacDonald.

[3] The Cleveland Performance Art Festival ran for 11 years, from 1988 to 1999, and was at the time the largest festival of its kind. Although 7a*11d chose not to replicate Cleveland’s hierarchical structure of varying support for artists based on their perceived stature, we did shamelessly copy the design of their application forms.

[4] And, it should be mentioned, the development of FADO as well, where I was the Performance Art Curator until 2007. Frank Green’s work at 7a*11d was presented as part of a FADO series entitled Five Holes: Touched. FADO was one of several performance art collectives and organizational entities that produced work under the banner of the 7a*11d festival in its early iterations.

Frank Green, Anonymous Test Site 7a*11d 1997 VIDEO STILL
Frank Green, Anonymous Test Site 7a*11d 1997 VIDEO STILL

Frank Green was an artist and writer based in Cleveland, Ohio. After studying filmmaking at Kent State University, he moved to New York in 1980, appearing in East Village clubs including the Limbo Lounge, Pyramid, ABC No Rio and Club 57. Returning to Cleveland in 1988 to kick a cocaine and heroin addiction, he discovered he was HIV positive, and spent the next several years practicing his art as a ritual of self-healing. He worked in various media, including audience participatory events, monologues, multimedia spectacles, and installations. A six-time Ohio Arts Council fellowship recipient, he performed throughout the U.S. and Canada, and was a regular art critic for the Cleveland Free Times, an alternative weekly newspaper. He was featured in the first 7a*11d International Festival of Performance Art in 1997 as part of the FADO series Five Holes: Touched.

Narrative engagement and the process of mattering

November 13 2014

Written By Jenn Snider

lo bil, The Clearing PHOTO Henry Chan

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To cap off the 2014 Festival Blog, Alison Cooley proposed that she and I (Jenn Snider) have a conversation about lo bil’s performance The Clearing, which took place all day Saturday November 1st, from 9am until 8pm.

By collaborating on the public archiving of a performance premised on the public sharing of a personal archive, we think this post nicely encapsulates the sort of tensions, exhilarations, and tangential connections we’ve enjoyed while on this epic adventure of textually documenting and discussing performance art. We hope you’ll agree.

A big thank you to the Toronto Performance Art Collective festival organizers, the volunteers, the audiences, the readers of our words, and most especially (and always) the artists.

Okay, here we go…

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lo bil, The Clearing PHOTO Henry Chan

ALISON COOLEY: Maybe a good place to start would be if we each describe our experience of encountering lo’s piece. We were on day four of a five-day festival and both of us had been spending our time (at the festival and at home and at night and in all of the hours surrounding it) trying to compulsively textually document it. And so at the point when lo started her piece, this whole question of the impossibility of the archive and of being true to the archive really resonated with me and with what we were doing, on a biographical level. I felt so overwhelmed with all of our writing, and in her work she was spreading out all of this writing that she had done over the years or that other people had sent her, and trying to surmount it.

JENN SNIDER: Absolutely. I definitely understand that biographical connection. In lo’s performance, I got the sense that in some ways she was trying to find the narrative, seeking something actively through the day that would bring all this material, this ephemera of her life, into the present moment or into her present experience. In a way, I felt like the task that we were doing (ostensibly documenting the performances) was immediately going to function differently in the context of that performance simply because of the meta-ish nature of archiving a process about an archive.

My first experience of lo’s piece was actually very jarring. Up until then, I had written each blog post by going through a process of locating myself in relation to the experience of the performance and the artist and the space and the audience and so on, and sorting out what I felt and what I thought, and sometimes those were very different things. With The Clearing this immediately changed. Over the course of the first few days of the festival I had been trying to be discrete. I would sit somewhere in the middle of the audience and take notes on my smartphone. I didn’t want to stand out as one of the bloggers— I wanted to blend in as part of the group. As the festival went on though, I felt a little bit more comfortable in the role, and more like “yes, I am the blogger,” but also, it became a matter of efficiency (typing on my phone was very slow), so I started carrying my laptop into the performance space. For the most part I didn’t feel that was out of place, but when I came in to watch lo’s piece, it was different. I sat down with my laptop and instantly felt very seen by her, as though I had declared “I am here to document you.” She spoke directly to me, as I later learned she was doing with other people who came in but I didn’t know that yet. The first thing she said was… well, she was talking to someone else when I came in, but then she turned to me and said, “I keep speaking out to the audience, but I don’t leave the action.” I wrote that down but felt sort of guilty that I had probably confronted her with my intention to record her actions vis-à-vis my obvious laptop.

AC: I’m trying to remember what my first experience was. I don’t think I had my notebook with me, at that point, but it was similar. There’s a bit of a parallel in this interesting way, because I think lo’s performance was so much about putting herself and her physical ephemera on show, and even to the point of letting the audience walk on it or dance in it, or pick up pieces, or read through the archive and sift through to find things that resonated with them, but you’re absolutely right— on the other side, especially because it was a durational work and there were so few people there as audience members during the time that most of the action was taking place… there were probably only about 10 chairs. But when I was there, she would routinely speak to the audience. Like, at one point she found a penny in the archive, and said, “oh! Here’s a penny!” and she recognized that there was another artist in the audience that was doing a project that involved pennies and she gave it to him for his project!

lo bil, The Clearing PHOTO Henry Chan

JS: (laughs) So many times she would find things in the archive that were actually connected to someone who was coming, or who had just left the room: other artists or friends that had come to see her perform. I thought that was pretty striking, too. The way she responded to the material that implicated others more directly.

This process she was going through, I like what it made me think of in terms of research and art, and how research can be art: this kind of broadening out of what art practice can be. It was performance and it most definitely resided there, but it demonstrated that pragmatic and conceptual space of artist-as-researcher— the practical action of making a thing: such as in that period of time when we were actively involved in searching the archive with her to find items to make a book, and then the importance of her reflective time: the thinking about and contextualizing what she was finding. This work was completely self-reflexive, particularly because it was all happening in a public space. It was like this empirically personal meaning-making-meaning-making-meaning-making— the entire time.

AC: Yeah! There are two things about this that are really interesting to me. One is the question of labour and artistic labour, and you and I have talked about this a bit in terms of administrative labour. In the culture of artists and arts workers, there is often the need to justify your labour in terms of research. But then also, the fact that much of that labour is very invisible, and there is sort of this economy of the arts where people who are not involved in the arts have lots of assumptions about our work in terms of career fulfillment. There’s the persistent idea that if you’re an artist, you do it because you love what you do, not because it’s urgent, or because you want to make a living. Or, “you shouldn’t think about it as work because you enjoy doing it.” And what is really front-and-centre for me in lo’s piece is the time and the labour that goes into extracting the material from a research process.

JS: Absolutely. The value hierarchies of labour in the arts and within arts institutions is an issue that gets spotlit from time to time in discussions about cultural economics. On one hand, the presentation of the issues are usually rightly addressing the ongoing matter of artists not receiving equitable pay for their work (or any pay in far too many situations), and then on another hand there are hidden or what you called invisible artistic labours that really don’t get discussed much. The work done by employees, volunteers, and interns in arts institutions that are ‘behind-the-scenes’ so to speak. The pragmatic doers who work in the spaces in between art and artist and audience and institution. There are gaps in acknowledging the value of those labours and labourers. Often the value of something like arts research is reified as outcomes-based… findings-based, rather than also valued as a creative process or practice. Other forms of arts institutional labour get overlooked as well, as you mentioned. A lot of so-called non-artist labour is in fact extremely imaginative and requires creative forms of engagement, such as the ways many arts administrators need to be flexible ‘on the ground’ with their practices and methods when working with artists within the institutional structure… it really is a question of why we recognize some forms of creative agency as artistic labour and not others.

It makes me think about the constraints that every art practice has. You’re always working within or against the conventions of your own process or of your discipline… plus the restrictions of time and space or whatever. Thinking about lo’s performance, I wonder how this version was perhaps different… and I think it would be so interesting to know how she has approached this archive-intervention and self-critique in other contexts. She came with a rigid-seeming schedule, and a unified aesthetic of fragments packed in banker-boxes. When I left the room the first time it was still in a decent state of order. There was a pile of boxes, and only one box had been opened, but it was still relatively neat. But when I came back a few hours later everything was in total disarray.

AC: I don’t think I ever saw it looking orderly. I didn’t see it in the morning.

lo bil, The Clearing PHOTO Henry Chan
lo bil, The Clearing PHOTO Henry Chan

JS: It was very orderly in the morning, but when I came back around lunchtime it was just Kaboom, stuff everywhere. People were walking on it, dancing on it, and it was an overwhelming sight. Just thinking about that transition from the order to explosion… the world is kinda chaotic, so any attempt to make art, have a practice, or basically do anything is constantly going to be contending with that potential chaos in some way. This human process of meaning making and questions about how we can do that authentically… oh yeah! That’s it, I had made a note about Gestalt (laughs). I felt that in some ways lo’s process was maybe reflective of the Gestalt approach to psychology which proposes that the mind makes wholes thanks to innate self-organizing tendencies, and is interested in how people can manage to have meaningful perceptions in the face of a world that is immensely chaotic. The Clearing is maybe an interesting example of that sort of notion, especially since lo used the archive to structure her memory-chaos. This impossible archive is one that can come alive.

AC: Yeah. To make it into a coherent narrative even though the archive inherently resists that kind of narrative. I’ve been thinking about that in reference to the whole festival, because, the experience of so many of the works that we encountered, and so much of performance art in general, is that things start out very methodical and then, at a certain point, entropy just takes over, and… (laughs). Basil AlZeri’s piece was a perfect iteration of that! He started out with this clean white shirt and this clean white table and everything was so orderly and he had a very regimented idea of what he was going to do and then all hell broke loose! I think performance art in general can be a really potent manifestation of entropy in the universe and in our lives. There are lots of other things performance is really good at, too. But that sense of all-encompassing entropy is unique to performance, as a medium, for me.

JS: I like this idea of trying to sum up the festival itself and failing marvellously because it can’t be done cleanly. Your Performance Art BINGO nailed it with so many of the kinds of things that might happen, and similarly what I was expecting was that there would be threads, thematic connections, that would emerge. I figured that I would be able to weave these into some sort of synopsis of the festival as a tapestry or like an art ecosystem or something, but no! I can’t do anything like that. It would be doing a disservice to what was presented, and what we’ve seen and experienced. Other than what you’ve said about entropy, which is totally right I think. There is a lack of order, and you can’t predict. So… I guess that is the summary, and that’s so beautiful.

AC: I ran into lo the other night and she mentioned something that had not occurred to me. She said that one of the people who had seen the performance had expressed a kind of shock at how personal her performance was, and said that they didn’t understand how she could make work that was so personal. And that person compared her work to Terrance Houle’s work and Nathalie Mba Bikoro’s work, in that they were all really personal. That struck me as a really interesting comparison, and I was wondering if you felt (as you said at the beginning of this conversation that you felt vulnerable or on display sometimes in your role as blogger) that her snippets that she chose to read and the reckless abandon with which she chose to read them, did you feel like that was personal? Did you feel like you were invading?

JS: Well, I guess it was obviously personal, but what I noticed was that I didn’t feel like an audience member when I watched her work. When I got involved and was participating or even when I just sat on the side I didn’t feel like I was watching a performance that had any separateness and therefore she seemed to be very vulnerable because she was so accessible. The sense was that even though she had done it before (this sort of performance with her archive), it did seem still that there was some flustered side to her because she didn’t know what would be found.

lo bil, The Clearing PHOTO Henry Chan

At one point she was reading something she’d picked up randomly and it was about her thoughts on pornography, and she got really embarrassed and defensive — “I don’t think about porn! I don’t write about porn! What is this? Pornography!?” She was clearly concerned about the insinuating impression this might be giving which she was obviously not comfortable with. Then she realized that the notes were probably for an essay she had been researching for a particular class, and then her body language and tone relaxed, probably because it made sense to her and the lens was one she was comfortable with…an impression she felt was appropriate, for how she felt she wanted to be perceived. So, I think she exhibited a desire to be seen but not to be judged, and to me that is very personal. It was like she needed to see and be seen in the spirit of generosity. It mattered what we thought. I didn’t feel it was self-involved, which is a critique that could be leveled at a work such as this, and that the reason it stayed clear of that was in her presentation. She made the difference because her presentation of herself was more about our engagement and presence and how we interacted. She was looking into people’s eyes and talking to them and wanting to explain and wanting to connect. That is what it felt like. So, of course it was very personal as an experience and that’s part of what it made it so good.

AC: I also didn’t get the sense that it was at all self-involved. What’s interesting is the way the work of constructing the narrative also desensitizes you. At one point when I came in she was reading about the dissolution of a few friendships and it wasn’t entirely clear what had happened but for whatever reason these people were no longer in her life. The way she read about it was very calm and collected, but it was inescapable that at the time those experiences must have been incredibly emotional. At the end, when she had done a costume change and had put on her dress and it was time for the presentation of the work, I found the fact that those personal moments of flusteredness or vulnerability or emotion or distance or confusion or realizations about not caring about something any more… the fact that those expressions kind of fractured this more official presentation was really helpful, because the piece, like you said, could have been very rote, but instead she made it feel like she was walking through it with us.

lo bil, The Clearing PHOTO Henry Chan

JS: She was making her archive come alive through her process for us, but it wasn’t like she was reliving it nostalgically, it was instead like she was observing, almost voyeuristically, her own life. She was playing, and playing with her own narrative. Maybe many people have had the experience where you find something you’ve written and you don’t recognize it, you can’t connect yourself to it.

AC: You’re not emotionally involved in that circumstance anymore.

JS: Yeah and that process… I don’t know. I don’t know what that is.

AC: I agree, but I want to avoid being romantic about it because she wasn’t romantic about it.

JS: You’re right, there’s no reason to make it a poetic expression. But it is somewhat of a phenomenon, isn’t it? Of memory and absence, maybe? But yeah, she wasn’t romantic. This was a process and she honoured that process, but was still a human about it. Contradictory, vulnerable, creative. There was flexibility. There were points when she would announce that she was off schedule, “we’re doing this now instead of this…” just because, and even though she didn’t need to share that explanation she did because it was part of honouring the process she had outlined. Making it known that it is important. That the process matters.

***

And, that’s a wrap for the 2014 7a*11d International Performance Art Festival Blog!
See you back here in 2016.

For the Disappeared

November 10 2014

Written By Jenn Snider

Roberto de la Torre PHOTO Henry Chan

On the last day of the festival, November 2nd, 2014, Roberto de la Torre opened the final set of performances. It is safe to assume that most who gathered that chilly late Fall afternoon didn’t know what to expect from de la Torre. Having had the opportunity to speak with him a few days before the festival began, I knew a little about what he was developing and the issue his performance would address, but I did not know how his processes would unfold. Little did I realize just how poignantly de la Torre’s actions would manifest, and how timely they would be.

Roberto de la Torre’s works take shape as negotiations of complex and ephemeral situations, associations, and actions that frequently involve large groups of people. He focuses on social issues that occur in the local context, but his performances also regularly speak to global matters. He can often find intersections that connect the two realms of concern and collapse them into one for a moment in space and time. He is from Mexico City.

For those who have remained unaware, on September 26th, 2014, 43 male college students studying to become teachers were abducted in the southern state of Guerrero, Mexico, allegedly by local police at the instruction of a corrupt local Mayor. Taken while on route to nearby Iguala to participate in a protest over the lack of funding for their school Ayotzinapa — an institution with a proud 80 year history of educating Mexico’s political left, with a student body known for their tactical activism — the students identities were shared with the media, but initially other details were scarce. As days turned to weeks inquiry into the whereabouts of the students was framed as a recovery mission hoping to save them from their uncertain circumstances. Then recently, government investigators began to open their findings up to the public. What they have shared has shaken Mexican society. Already grieving, frayed, and beleaguered by over seven years of endemic violence at the hands of organized crime, tens of thousands have taken to the streets to protest.

At present, the understanding is that the students have been murdered, disappeared after being delivered by the corrupt local police to members of a drug gang; their incinerated remains potentially located as a result of arrests and interrogation. The outrage that has swept much of Mexico has become louder as waves of protest and public grief have continued. To write anything further on the unfolding story feels a surreal overstep in this context, and instead I’ve included links to several articles covering the investigation and Mexican citizen’s response over the last week.

NPR: “Confirmation Of Mexican Students’ Deaths Touches Off Protests”

The Guardian: “Protesters set fire to Mexican palace as anger over missing students grows”

CNN World: “Remains could be those of 43 missing Mexican students”

Democracy Now: “‘I’ve Had Enough’: Mexican Protesters Decry Years of Impunity After Apparent Massacre of 43 Students”

This tragedy has been told internationally by media as the investigation into the student’s whereabouts has continued to unfold. A situation so heart-wrenching and bewildering, far away geographically yet so close to home, despite following the story in the press, I confess I initially felt unprepared to address the complex nature of this atrocity in light of de la Torre’s performance. I’ve sat with the experience for seven days now, monitoring the media and pondering how to approach this post. For better or worse, the situation has come to a head. My suggestion here is that the feelings of anguish and dislocation that surround my personal response to this horrible story are intertwined with the artists own. I have arrived at a place where I must admit that there is nothing knowable that can be found to fully address this nonsensical and appalling act. And this is where we must begin.

~

de la Torre starts his performance slumped against the wall. Surrounded by the large festival crowd, he sits on the edge of an indoor plant box, and is in a state of despondency. His eyes downcast, de la Torre sighs, idly jabs his index finger into the soil, and proceeds to flick it onto the floor. As though conjured, he unearths a spoon.

Roberto de la Torre PHOTO Henry Chan

Armed with this utensil, de la Torre stands. The spoon, an extension of his will to action, is plunged deep into another section of the planter’s soil. Out clatters another tool, a spatula trowel which he picks up to replace the spoon before continuing on. Before long, de la Torre’s exploration of the structures and architecture of the hall reveal a spoon, a trowel, a pair of long forks, and a rake. Pausing at each discovery as if to ponder his next step, de la Torre seems to be playing with the tangibility of his results and how they can be applied. With rake in hand, he heads outside.

Roberto de la Torre PHOTO Henry Chan

de la Torre paces the sidewalk. In a growing state of distress and followed by the crowd, he moves to the lawn and begins to rake leaves aside. Intentional yet hesitant, de la Torre’s actions grow more vigorous as he scrapes and pulls the leaves away from the building. Seeing something, he drops to his knees.

Roberto de la Torre PHOTO Henry Chan
Roberto de la Torre PHOTO Henry Chan
Roberto de la Torre PHOTO Henry Chan
Roberto de la Torre PHOTO Henry Chan

With a plastic bowl now in hand, he moves on. With no apparent destination, de la Torre is not ambling but tracking. He puts his ear to the earth. He listens. This action transfers our awareness of his interests from the objects to the ways they can help him access something underground. We watch as de la Torre moves to the base of a tree and digs with the bowl. He quickly finds a silver ladle. He moves again. This time locating a metal spade, and we begin to see his progress. His tools are developing. They are better than they were before.

Digging beside the fence, he uncovers a shovel. We follow him to a large sandbox in the playground behind the festival building. Fittingly, it is a former school. For the first time we can see that de la Torre has posted the faces of the missing students in the windows of the classrooms. Dragging the shovel he drops to the ground. Lying flat, his ear pressed to the sand, he seems uncertain but he begins to dig. Gathering closely, the crowd circles de la Torre as he shovels wet sand.

He labours for a long time. His breathing grows heavy, and despite the cold, he sweats. Eventually de la Torre slows and for the first time, he speaks—“Fausto!” Calling out to his fellow artist and countryman, Fausto Méndez Luna, de la Torre beckons him to help. Together they uncover a second shovel but nothing more. Speaking quietly in Spanish, they move on. Another hole is dug. A third shovel is uncovered and de la Torre offers it to anyone willing to help. A fourth shovel brings yet another pair of arms. A fifth shovel is revealed and the numbers grow yet again. Eventually there are eight.

Roberto de la Torre PHOTO Henry Chan
Roberto de la Torre PHOTO Henry Chan
Roberto de la Torre PHOTO Henry Chan
Roberto de la Torre PHOTO Henry Chan

Together the group digs and the sand piles up. When they hit gravel at a depth of approximately three feet, de la Torre stops. Guiding this group away from the sand he lines them up shoulder to shoulder. He instructs them to bang their shovels against the concrete ground. As the rhythmic clanging rings out, de la Torre and Méndez Luna step onto the playground. In the dark earth they dig one last time.

Slowly de la Torre begins to pull items of clothing from the ground. Caked with soil, he lays them out, damp and dingy, across the play structures. Running, de la Torre holds a shirt over his head. Dropping to the ground he punches the earth. The sun is growing dim and the windows of the school glow brighter. A window on the top floor opens wide. Arms fling papers out into the sky. Scattering and floating, they fall to the ground. The clanging of the shovels heightens the intensity of this reveal, and the audience gathers to examine what has fallen across the playground. Photos of protests, huge crowds with mouths wide yelling out in dissent and despair, men and women holding vigil and embracing… these are the images of the current state of the Mexican people who have joined together to protest.

Roberto de la Torre PHOTO Henry Chan

de la Torre rises to his feet, and signals. The shovels are silent, and all there is to be heard is the rustle of papers. For the disappeared…

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