Festival Blog

Narrative engagement and the process of mattering

lo bil, The Clearing (photo by Henry Chan)

lo bil, The Clearing (photo by 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 by Henry Chan)

lo bil, The Clearing (photo by 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 by Henry Chan)

lo bil, The Clearing (photo by 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 by Henry Chan)

lo bil, The Clearing (photo by Henry Chan)

lo bil, The Clearing (photo by Henry Chan)

lo bil, The Clearing (photo by Henry Chan)

lo bil, The Clearing (photo by Henry Chan)

lo bil, The Clearing (photo by 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 by Henry Chan)

lo bil, The Clearing (photo by 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 by Henry Chan)

lo bil, The Clearing (photo by 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.

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

For the Disappeared

Roberto de la Torre (photo by Henry Chan)

Roberto de la Torre (photo by 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 by Henry Chan)

Roberto de la Torre (photo by 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 by Henry Chan)

Roberto de la Torre (photo by 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 by Henry Chan)

Roberto de la Torre (photo by Henry Chan)

Roberto de la Torre (photo by Henry Chan)

Roberto de la Torre (photo by Henry Chan)

Roberto de la Torre (photo by Henry Chan)

Roberto de la Torre (photo by Henry Chan)

Roberto de la Torre (photo by Henry Chan)

Roberto de la Torre (photo by 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 by Henry Chan)

Roberto de la Torre (photo by Henry Chan)

Roberto de la Torre (photo by Henry Chan)

Roberto de la Torre (photo by Henry Chan)

Roberto de la Torre (photo by Henry Chan)

Roberto de la Torre (photo by Henry Chan)

Roberto de la Torre (photo by Henry Chan)

Roberto de la Torre (photo by 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.

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…

Roberto de la Torre (photo by Henry Chan)

Roberto de la Torre (photo by Henry Chan)

Maria Hupfield: While you were away

Maria Hupfield, Partial Recall (photo by Henry Chan)

Maria Hupfield, Partial Recall (photo by Henry Chan)

Back in 2012, Maria Hupfield performed Fixed Time as part of the 9th annual 7a*11d International Festival of Performance Art. In that piece, Hupfield used her body as means to confront the ways memories interfere and/or aid in performance art documentation. She utilized strategies of oral storytelling alongside common everyday objects and craft materials to convey her ideas about the tensions present in how memories are gathered and archived. Hupfield’s process positioned visual triggers to support the imprint of particular memories and had the work documented with polaroid photographs which were subsequently sold to audience members.

Following the 2012 performance, one of the objects used in the piece was stolen—a bear mask. An unfortunate fact, this theft nevertheless created an opportunity for Hupfield to test her hypothesis. Flash forward to 2014, and Hupfield has come back; returning to the festival this year to gather any information from recurrent attendees, and query their memories with posters asking Have You Seen This Bear?

Maria Hupfield, Partial Recall (photo by Henry Chan)

Maria Hupfield, Partial Recall (photo by Henry Chan)

Presented as Partial Recall, Hupfield came back in the hopes of recording audience member’s recollections of the 2012 piece. As a work in absentia, it is notable that the artist herself did not attend to the gathering of materials, electing to send a colleague in her place instead. With over a dozen contributors, oral histories and signed statements were offered in support of the historification of Fixed Time and the performance of Partial Recall.

Maria Hupfield, Partial Recall (photo by Henry Chan)

Maria Hupfield, Partial Recall (photo by Henry Chan)

Among the aural fragments and the deep shallows

Linda Rae Dornan,Calling the Cukoo (photo by Henry Chan)

Linda Rae Dornan,Calling the Cukoo (photo by Henry Chan)

At first blush, Linda Rae Dornan’s performance Calling the Cukoo exists at a crossroads of language, the body, and aurality. Standing in the center of the performing area she breathes a wheezing flow of partial words. With bright eyes, she emphasizes the nearly-there as an expression of potential in her communication. Dornan appears to resonate with a presence and express a texture of absence, often both at once.

She forms letters with her body.
She writes on the wall with a long stick:

Skin to Words
Words to script

Linda Rae Dornan,Calling the Cukoo (photo by Henry Chan)

Linda Rae Dornan,Calling the Cukoo (photo by Henry Chan)

Sounding the muse, Dornan meyowls like a cat. A small child in the crowd answers back spontaneously, instinctively playful and Dornan smiles. The personality, the person, lends a story to the performance; a narrative and a desire to connect all give sense. What we receive here is as it is in life, snippets and bits of shared meaning and opportunities that are fleeting. Understanding is naturally limited because our insight is defined as much by an awareness of what we are able to hear or see or feel as by what we do not identify.

Linda Rae Dornan,Calling the Cukoo (photo by Henry Chan)

Linda Rae Dornan,Calling the Cukoo (photo by Henry Chan)

Adding a giant plush red heart on her back like a burden, a backpack, a hunch, in this next phase she seems set on troubling when she hears and sees as interference. Showing us a quarter-split screen of people and their phones, texting, sexting… the habits and the fragments that resemble feeling are suggested as sets of expectations.

She writes on the wall with a long stick:

Encoded Text.
Alive
to
Being

Writing on her body and onto her plush heart, Dornan marks her arms and this crimson burden blindly, behind her back. In this symbolic act that reverberates with the suggestion of her body as an encoded text, a secret language of a life that goes on, Dornan is as resilient and defiant as she is playful and affectingly personal. Spinning a lasso made of braid, she rhymes:

“Don’t tell me what to do,
don’t set my parameters
by your own moral view.”

Linda Rae Dornan,Calling the Cukoo (photo by Henry Chan)

Linda Rae Dornan,Calling the Cukoo (photo by Henry Chan)

Singing along to a recording of her mother, Muriel, performing a rendition of the song “Gypsy Rover”, Dornan winds us into her embrace of a cut-out body of letters.

The gypsy rover came over the hill
Down through the valley so shady,
He whistled and he sang ’til the greenwoods rang,
And he won the heart of a lady.
Ah-de-do, ah-de-do-da-day,
Ah-de-do, ah-de-da-ay
He whistled and he sang ’til the greenwoods rang,
And he won the heart of a lady.

Linda Rae Dornan,Calling the Cukoo (photo by Henry Chan)

Linda Rae Dornan,Calling the Cukoo (photo by Henry Chan)

Speaking with Dornan later that day, I ask her about whether the past influences — namely her relationship with her late husband who was diagnosed with dementia, Pick’s Disease, which slowly took away his capacity to use formal language — were still present in this work. Of course, the answer was yes. Dornan reminded me that we never really leave anything behind. Commenting on the singular imagery in her performance: the single figure waving their arms, the lone shadow on the grass, her spoken phrase that referenced her surreal identity as a lone molecule, it feels ambiguous yet emergent that this is not a work about a relationship with another, but a relationality with words, sound, and herself.

Linda Rae Dornan,Calling the Cukoo (photo by Henry Chan)

Linda Rae Dornan,Calling the Cukoo (photo by Henry Chan)

Dornan’s performance demonstrated her ability to tell a story of love and life with missing words and sounds and pieces of phraseology that are imperfect yet as rich as a sonnet, as beautiful as a symphony, or as effervescent as a field of fireflies. With or without an elaborate context, sense can always speak where words are absent. Dornan’s performance allowed us to gain a sense of how we can find peace among the fragments and deep shadows despite it slipping though our perceptive fingers, if we’ll feel and if we’ll listen.

Dispatch I from Landsgemeinde

claude wittmann, Landsgemeinde (photo Henry Chan)

claude wittmann, Landsgemeinde (photo Henry Chan)

claude wittmann has only one egalitarian action on the list which he promised to develop over the course of Radio Equals. Fittingly, the action on his list is exactly what he has been doing all week: Have a conversation about equality while trying to be egalitarian.

wittmann introduces us to the Swiss direct-democratic practice of Landsgemeinde. “Landsgemeinde,” he tells us, translates to “community of the land,” (sticky, he mentions, since the land we are on today is stolen). In Switzerland, Landsgemeinde occured yearly, outside. It was a method of direct democracy involving voting by raised hands on the area’s affairs, policies, expenses. The practice is less commonplace now, only practiced in a few select regions, but occurred regularly across the country into the mid-90s. Until 1991, explains wittmann, it was exclusively the privilege of men, who would demonstrate their citizenship by bringing their bayonets.

wittmann presents us with the options lying before us: will we agree to do this action (have a conversation about equality while being egalitarian)? If so, there’s the potential for each of us to be paid $5 for the act (of the reamaining $200 if wittmann’s saved artist’s fee, after expenses and equipment). Or, two people would converse and each be paid $100. The moment wittmann introduces the compensation, I think immediately of the prisoner’s dilemma. I worry we are being mislead by the process, that somewhere along we will start to argue over this $200. I mistrust, but I follow.

The majority of the voters commit to do the action. Henry counts. Those who do not agree to commit leave the stairwell where we have gathered. We vote on whether to do the action outside of the confines of the festival. The answer is yes. As the vote comes to compensation, an audience member raises a proposal: that claude keep his money. We vote to adopt the proposal, then we vote, in an overwhelming majority, that claude keep the $200. We vote again, on whether everyone or only two will do the action. Majority determines everyone will. Another audience member proposes we vote on what to do with the money. Her proposal is rejected.

claude wittmann, Landsgemeinde (photo Henry Chan)

claude wittmann, Landsgemeinde (photo Henry Chan)

The whole thing feels procedural, far from the intimacy of claude and his guest in his little room. But it also feels powerful. Like claude’s conversation, this is just one of many possible (and variously successful) methods for egalitarian action.

Though I leave Landsgemeinde knowing I have participated in democratic commitment, with all the tinges of bureaucratic democracy it brings (perhaps the previous week’s municipal election left me sour), I also leave knowing that Radio Equals has given me tools for the conversation I will have. Tools I have learned, not from voting, but from claude’s manner: his openness, vulnerability, insistent truthfulness coupled with insistent generosity.

I would like, additionally, to commit to a second dispatch from Landsgemeinde: a record of the conversation I am going to have about equality, here, on the blog.

As I prepare for the conversation, my biggest questions are these: What about difference? How, in our bodies and our words, do we equalize the differences between us society insists upon replicating? Gender, class, sexuality, race, mental health, religion, language, ability. How do we resist equalizing these, flattening them until we fail to be varied or care that we are varied? Is it worth trying for the privileged space of assuming we can all be equal in a society that is profoundly inequal? How is it appropriate to defer to authority, or knowledge, or expertise, while maintaining an egalitarian relationship? Do I want to? What about secrets? Am I unequal if I withhold them? What if I cannot be vulnerable enough? What if I need to go to the bathroom mid-conversation? Who are the people in my life I am ready to have this conversation with? Is a stranger better?

My biggest hope is this (and it sounds almost too cheesy, too woo, too sincerely optimistic to make concrete): that if, at the simplest level, in a relation between two humans, we can feel equality in our bodies, then we can know what it feels like when we work towards it in the more complex situations that make up the majority of our interactions. Conversation as micro-utopia.

Theo Pelmus: Immaculate Abjection

Theo Pelmus, Immaculata Conception Second Vision of Excess (photo Henry Chan)

Theo Pelmus, Immaculata Conception Second Vision of Excess (photo Henry Chan)

The floor is littered with objects in Theo Pelmus’s performance. Part installation, part stage set, the scene includes two projections on opposing walls of a small kitsch Pieta sculpture (bits of gold leaf and a stuck-on butterfly clinging to it in the wind), small bottles of baby powder, wine, and honey, a toy rocking horse, doll parts, and what appears to be a strap-on dildo, cartoonishly extended, its bulbous surface dribbled in glitter. His performance, Immaculata Conception Second Vision of Excess begins with the artist anxiously pacing in circles around the room. A baroque disorder begins to descend upon the scene: Pelmus drips honey, puffs baby powder dust in the air, he smears lipstick on the floor with his teeth, overfills two glasses with wine and milk until they bleed into each other in a grey-pink on the floor. He does a headdstand, and coming down, topples the glasses. It’s circus-like. A toddler in the crowd watching exclaimes “uh oh! What happened?” and I can’t help but agree. Pelmus’s ostentatious scene is dizzying.

Theo Pelmus, Immaculata Conception Second Vision of Excess (photo Henry Chan)

Theo Pelmus, Immaculata Conception Second Vision of Excess (photo Henry Chan)

Pelmus straps the exaggerated dildo to his face. There seems to be a remote control in it, and over the course of the the performance, the projections flit between images of white foxes, a chocolate-drizzled pelmus, a broken pinocchio doll attempting to speak, blue flames, a superimposed copy of the Bible, the moon, a beaded penis cozy, a baby in a field. Pelmus drives the dildo-nose around the room, slowly. He whips the projections with it, lights a plaster cast of teeth on fire and attempts to put them out with gold leaf. His face appears again and again in the projection, disjointed since in the dark, amid the steady unfurling of this malformed world, we don’t ever get to see it, lock eyes with it.

Theo Pelmus, Immaculata Conception Second Vision of Excess (photo Henry Chan)

Theo Pelmus, Immaculata Conception Second Vision of Excess (photo Henry Chan)

There is so much to get lost in. What is most compelling in Pelmus’s over-sensory scenes are the excesses and violences of Christianity. His gawdy rock-operatic ballet of the grotesque returns again and again to the wine, the gold leaf, the child, the virgin Mary, the deviance of sex, the extravagance, the repentance. The shattering moment of stillness in Pelmus’s monstrous parade comes with a projected video of he and his partner. She speaks what I discern as Anisshinaabemowin, and together she and Pelmus join the front strands of their hair together in one thick braid. There is a hint, in this moment, of this abject opera as more than just a spectacle, but a meeting place of two people who bear an elaborate and nuanced relationship to these questions of religion and social convention. In this moment, Pelmus lifts the veil of the persistent and complex relation between humans and the church (in the distinct but nonetheless layered and intersecting contexts of Catholocism in colonized Canada and Orthodoxy in Romania). The simple act of two people standing face to face and communing with each other (not with God, or with their own tormented psyches) never repeats in Pelmus’s performance. It stands out as a moment of clarity and presence, an opening of the internal world to each other.

Terrance Houle and the Violence of Complicity

Terrance Houle, Friend or Foe #7 (photo Henry Chan)

Terrance Houle, Friend or Foe #7 (photo Henry Chan)

Terrance Houle beckons his audience closer, drawing a square around himself. I’ll admit to having let my curiosity get the better of me ahead of time—I know he’s enlisted some others to assist in his performance, and he tells me I’ll want to make sure I’m at the front. I’d interviewed Houle about another performance of his, National Indian Leg Wrestling League of North America (NILWLNA) just a few weeks before, and perhaps I’m expecting “sports in the gallery” as I take my seat at the front. I also know this is his last performance before an indefinite hiatus, and that what I am about to see is momentous for that reason alone.

Houle begins by ceremoniously laying out a set of objects: a tube of red paint, a tube of black, an xacto knife, a brown liquor bag with a bottle inside, a few pieces of chalk inside a metal bowl, an empty glass. He’s wearing a button up shirt and tie, slacks, glasses. His hair is in two braids just past shoulder length. Houle lights a cigarette, faces the audience. He mimes, pointing to himself, draws two fingers underneath his nose, makes a figure with his fingers, places a figure atop a travelling hand, gestures to the sky. At some point he makes a fist. We look up at Houle as he presents each series of gestures to one side of the audience: facing North, South, East, West. Some of us call out our guesses for what each means like an awkward game of charades.

Houle takes a swig from his bottle, sits down on his chair in the centre of the audience. Soon there’s a banging at the closed studio door, and four performers force entry, their faces obscured by balaclavas, dressed in black with academic hoods and capes. Against the screaching of electric guitars, the male balaclavad figure begins to operatically decree the words on his printout of an academic paper, while the others roll up their own stacks of paper into makeshift bludgeons, and begin to beat Houle. The artist collapses from his chair. His assailants drag him to the chalkboard on the wall, push him up against it, face-first, and draw a chalk circle around him. The objects Houle had set up are scattered, the red paint is punctured. It’s been dragged across the floor by scuffling feet.

Terrance Houle, Friend or Foe #7 (photo Henry Chan)

Terrance Houle, Friend or Foe #7 (photo Henry Chan)

When his attackers bring Houle back from the board, they begin to strip him. We all look on as they tear off his shirt, tie, underwear. At this point, red paint smeared on the ground is indistinguishable from the scrapes on Houle’s body. Someone in the audience has caught his glasses in the beat-down, but it isn’t until the naked Houle claws his way towards and audience member that someone intervenes. As his assailants pull Houle by the ankles, removing his socks, an audience member clutches him, throws his body over Houle’s. They try to pull him off, but he clings. Soon another joins him, blockading the figure still wailing his academic jargon. Another stretches out her hands, tries to hold them back. In a flurry of seconds the assailants try to keep these interveners back, the figure atop Houle clasps his body against him and kisses his back softly, one of the attackers seems to whisper something, they scatter their paper-made bludgeons into the audience, throw open a bag at Houle’s side. A loincloth, a beaded collar and chest plate, and a set of hand-held bells clatter to the floor.

Houle’s body is still. Once the hooded figures have departed, the audience members guarding his body move back. Some of the onlookers push his shirt and pants towards him to cover his naked body, but he paws them aside. He lights a cigarette, smokes it. Rearranges his objects. He puts on and adjusts the loincloth. Next is collar, then the chest plate. Houle lights another cigarette as he drags several bags of black soil into the centre of the studio. Before he dumps them out, he reiterates the signs he had made with his hands earlier. A scattered mummer of “I?.. Me. Strong? …I … travel?” hums along with his gestures.

Terrance Houle, Friend or Foe #7 (photo Henry Chan)

Terrance Houle, Friend or Foe #7 (photo Henry Chan)

Houle kneels atop his mound, opens his palms, smears them with red paint (which he imprints over his mouth and on his body), then with black (and does the same.) He takes his set of bells in his hand and shakes them rhythmically. He sings: I’ll ride with you/I’ll pray for you.

The artist washes his entire body with the black soil, before, sitting upright, he takes the xacto knife to his braids. He buries the two strands in the earth. As a final act, he returns to us, and mimes the same gestures out.

I am strong?
I am blood.
I’ll ride with you.
I’ll pray with you.

We recognize these motions newly as a manifestation of something that was always there (not beyond Houle’s experience, but beyond our own). And in the same way, we recognize the violence upon Houle’s body: not as new, but as something we cannot avoid having witnessed firsthand. Essays on art and Indigenous artists (I spy the disparate names “Clement Greenberg” and “Joane Cardinal”) lie strewn on the floor. It’s another knowledge, but one that seems far less immediate than Houle’s body on the mound, the kiss on his back, the bells in his hand, the scratches on his arm. Houle’s body is a site of knowledge, trauma, healing: all together in his lungs and his mouth and his scratched up arms. Houle tells us the next day, in a panel, that he cut off his braids to mark a transition, that he cleansed his body just as his father does after fasting, that he wrote this song for Adrian Stimson, that he spoke in a pre-colonial North American Indigenous sign language at the beginning of his performance. So many things I did not know but that manifest in Houle’s body. Lastly, he tells us that the description written in the program for the performance, iisistsikóówa, translates to “he is tired.” And of course he is. The performance reads as an allegory for being an Indigenous artist in Canada: being categorized, canonized, valorized, commodified on the market and in academic theory, even while being subject to the colonial aggressions of nationally sanctioned racist policy-making and individual everyday violences.

But Houle’s performance also takes me back to my own complicity, as a white person, in these individual everyday violences; to a coming-of-age in Saskatoon amid the Neil Stonechild inquiry, where being too young, too female, too scared, all ranked as reasons I didn’t try to break up fights or stop on the street when something felt amiss; to stumbling into the middle of violences that had not yet happened, were maybe about to; the times I called the police and later regretted it; the times I pleaded with my friends not to call the police. To watching Houle being beaten up, and watching others intervene. My own failure to act, under colonial power that make us all vulnerable, reproduces our differences until we are all too female/too poor/too queer/too triggered/too weak/too scared to intervene.

Houle’s performance continues to resonate with me not just as an embodiment of his experiences, but because it demands action. And rather than position himself as a performer somewhere tangential to the world, Houle brings the violence of the world inside the studio. With it, he brings the doubt, the fear, the complicity, and the smallness that taint every ethical decision we, as witnesses, ever have to make. He urges us to respond, and to know that even if we think we have waited, yielded, tried to withold judgement, that’s a fucked up response.

Unruly Foodstuffs

Basil AlZeri, The Death of Performance Art (photo Henry Chan)

Basil AlZeri, The Death of Performance Art (photo Henry Chan)

Basil AlZeri, clad in a white dress shirt, hands neatly folded across a pristine white-clothed table, announces that his performance will be called “The Death of Performance Art.” It seems absurd to me that no one has ever given this title to their work before—a cursory Google search yields only a lot of press about Marina Abramović, including a Hyperallergic article heralding the death of her work (and all performance by proxy) after that woeful day upon which Jay-Z involved her in his performance of the rap art project, “Picasso Baby.” There’s a hint of current-day Abramović in AlZeri’s sensational claim that his performance will act as a retrospective of 32 years of performance art. This slice of performance art history mirrors AlZeri’s own lifetime (not as a performer, but on the planet), and so it serves as a catalogue of events contemporaneous with his coming-of-age, and of the practices his mentors, teachers, and older peers are most likely to gaze upon with fondness and nostalgia, eyes glinting as they introduce their young pupils and whisper, “I was there!” AlZeri treats these iconic works with an amount of respect both utterly inappropriate and totally necessary: as he declares the beginning of his performative endeavor, stepping out from behind the table, the artist reveals he is wearing no pants to accompany his prim and proper shirt, sporting only a pair of tighty-whiteys.

As soon as AlZeri’s performance begins, it’s clear mayhem is about to erupt. A projection in the upper corner of the studio behind the artist gives the name and year of each performance as AlZeri re-performs it, and a timer counts down the seconds he has left to complete his imitation. Nothing is in chronological order a AlZeri lurches from one performance to the next. A piercing alarm sounds at regular short intervals signalling the need to move on. Some of the performances are immediately recognizable (Jana Sterbak’s Meat Dress, for example, which AlZeri reenacts by draping his body in cold cuts). Others bear on the context of the festival and its organizers (before beginning one reenactment, he apologizes profusely to Paul Couillard before launching into a high-speed version of Couillard’s 1998 24-hour durational performance Trace Elements). Each work, however, confronts the legacies of performance art as they concern foodstuffs—whether or not AlZeri replicates the original materials seems irrelevant. Nesquik proves a suitable substitute for almost anything.

Basil AlZeri, The Death of Performance Art (photo Henry Chan)

Basil AlZeri, The Death of Performance Art (photo Henry Chan)

Basil AlZeri, The Death of Performance Art (photo Henry Chan)

Basil AlZeri, The Death of Performance Art (photo Henry Chan)

Over the course of AlZeri’s performance, his white shirt becomes stained, the tablecloth drips, there’s red wine on the floor, the artist’s glasses become caked in chocolate. The hands and arms of audience members he recruits for interactive moments of his rapid-fire peformances cannot escape being similarly smeared. While ketchup, pudding, wine, and chocolate make their way back into his performance by cycles, some elements are cast aside immediately (the cabbages he has a volunteer strap to his fists to recreate Sylvette Babin’s Punching Wall, an onion he takes a few merciless bites from in restaging Marina Abramović’s The Onion). AlZeri is hurried. Each performance is frustratingly incomplete. The alarm is a jolt every time. AlZeri interjects commentary, hurriedly saying “you get the idea!” as he abandons one performance for the next. Nearing the end, the room reaches an excessive fever pitch. Everything in his performance area is absolutely, wretchedly coated in food waste. The crowd has been laughing for almost the entirety of the event.

Basil AlZeri, The Death of Performance Art (photo Henry Chan)

Basil AlZeri, The Death of Performance Art (photo Henry Chan)

As AlZeri’s final performance, he speaks into the microphone, at first inquisitively: “Tanya Mars?” The audience knows what’s next: “In Pursuit of Happiness, 2005” is projected directly above the scene. In no time flat, AlZeri has the audience chanting along with him, and a loop pedal transforms his rhythmic chanting into a fever-pitched disco. AlZeri presents Mars with several (somehow still pristine) cakes, and we writhe along as she spends the last two minutes of the performance taking steady bites.

AlZeri’s performance builds on the established aesthetics of food-works (of abjection, disgust, endurance, the politics of the kitchen), but it also responds to the contemporary culture of performance art, especially in a relational age, where offering food can become a short-hand for community engagement. AlZeri has worked with food as a medium for the past several years, addressing colonial issues in his cooking performances which unfurl over the course of hours on Skype with his mother directing him in the preparation of her Palestinian dishes, from Dubai. Palestinian food’s resiginification under Israeli rule sits central to this work. But the food in The Death of Performance Art could almost be described as non-food. Flour, ketchup, Nesquik, cabbage, onions—each seems to become bare over the course of the performance (although each undoubtedly has its own signification, these are evacuated in the excess of Alzeri’s endeavor). AlZeri’s performance enacts a debt to the legacy of food in performance, and to its enthusiastic, ambivalent, and varied politics. But it also mocks that legacy, pointing to something not unlike Marina and Jay-Z: the moment food as a medium collapses upon itself.

Sky is the Limit: Aidana’s Uncommon Intimacies

Aidana Maria Rico Chavez, De la serie variaciones sobre el vuelo. El cielo [From the series on flight. The sky] (photo by Henry Chan)

Aidana Maria Rico Chavez, De la serie variaciones sobre el vuelo. El cielo [From the series on flight. The sky] (photo by Henry Chan)

Aidana Maria Rico Chavez enters the room whistling a happy tune. Hands clasped behind her back, she casts her eyes across the crowd. All facing toward the center scene where a blue gingham picnic blanket, a few mason jars, a skipping rope, and some cardboard lie waiting, the audience sits, smiling back at her.

Her mood is light, and her energy is special. Homing in on one audience member seated on the floor, Aidana drops to all fours and caresses this stranger’s face as if it belongs to a lover. Pressing her lips to skin, she begins kissing. Forehead, neck, chin, nose, cheeks, Aidana’s lips leave red lipstick smears as she goes, moving on to the person seated next. Kissing her way across arms and up shoulders, laughter ripples through the crowd as people jostle to get a spot in Aidana ’s intimate trajectory. Pausing only to reapply generous coats of red lipstick, Aidana kisses her way around the circle—down arms, across laps, up necks and across foreheads, loving noses of all shapes and sizes, eye lids, and ears. Making squelching smacking sounds every so often she kicks up her leg to indicate titillation and hints at a sort of reciprocation. No matter what, the sense is that these are uncommon intimacies, and Aidana has not just broken the ice she has melted it into a little festival puddle. This sensuous beginning has filled the room with an uncertain desire and eager people excited to see what else she has planned.

Aidana Maria Rico Chavez’s performance consists of a series of actions involving interrelation with human subjects as objects, and the poetics of objects as subjects. Serving as the connecting agent to aid in these relationships being uncovered, Aidana tries to remove the boundaries we place between our minds/bodies and those of the outside world. Her performance is titled De la serie variaciones sobre el vuelo. El cielo [From the series on flight. The sky] and with that in mind it seems that in some ways she has set no limits.

Rico Chavez, De la serie variaciones sobre el vuelo. El cielo [From the series on flight. The sky] (photo by Henry Chan)

Rico Chavez, De la serie variaciones sobre el vuelo. El cielo [From the series on flight. The sky] (photo by Henry Chan)

Rico Chavez, De la serie variaciones sobre el vuelo. El cielo [From the series on flight. The sky] (photo by Henry Chan)

Rico Chavez, De la serie variaciones sobre el vuelo. El cielo [From the series on flight. The sky] (photo by Henry Chan)

After finishing the circle of lipstick smeared greetings, and movements made with a spirit of innocence like that of an eager cat or dog, she stops to observe the crowd again. Asking for a member of the audience to stand, she bends and wraps her arms around him and levers him up onto her shoulder and walks around the circle with this human being on her back. As though this particular burden represents the artist’s capacity, her actions playfully traverse the space between audience and artist, like that of a clown or ringmaster who invites a child to join them in the center ring.

Rico Chavez, De la serie variaciones sobre el vuelo. El cielo [From the series on flight. The sky] (photo by Henry Chan)

Rico Chavez, De la serie variaciones sobre el vuelo. El cielo [From the series on flight. The sky] (photo by Henry Chan)

Returning him to his seat, she points to a pair of large boots on the feet of a member of the audience as her way of asking that they be removed and shared. Putting them on, they are comically too big yet Aidana wears them instead of her own. Next, pointing to a man standing in the back she gestures to his legs. “You want my pants?” he asks. Aidana nods, “please”. After the laughter dies down and the much-too-big pants are on, a belt is borrowed and she continues round the circle gathering a shirt here and a jacket there. Wearing these new borrowed skins and whistling, she pulls someone else from the audience for a short graceful slow dance just before she takes to the blackboard to write:

Yo no hablo ingles ella no habla ingles el no habla ingles ella no habla ingles no sotros no habla ingles yo no hablo ingles

translation:
I do not speak English she does not speak English does not speak English she does not speak English we speak no other English I do not speak English

Rico Chavez, De la serie variaciones sobre el vuelo. El cielo [From the series on flight. The sky] (photo by Henry Chan)

Rico Chavez, De la serie variaciones sobre el vuelo. El cielo [From the series on flight. The sky] (photo by Henry Chan)

These words provide an opportunity for us to understand Aidana’s actions as feats of connection. Without a common language in this context (she speaks Spanish), perhaps it is a matter of associating through symbolic action that gives Aidana her method of relationality. Redressing into her own clothes, Aidana places a string looped through a blank piece of cardboard around her neck. Picking up the skipped rope, she jumps and skips while the sign around her neck bounces, dances, and flaps. With each skipping sequence, she adds another blank sign. Four are added in total, all blank, and all label Aidana as a performer without access to a common language who nevertheless is using her body and her actions to work very hard to reach us.

Rico Chavez, De la serie variaciones sobre el vuelo. El cielo [From the series on flight. The sky] (photo by Henry Chan)

Rico Chavez, De la serie variaciones sobre el vuelo. El cielo [From the series on flight. The sky] (photo by Henry Chan)

Crouching down she retrieves a small plastic bird, and when she blows into it we realize it’s a bird whistle, and she is making it sweetly sing. Aidana hands the bird to an audience member and stoops again, this time to pick up a mason jar filled with corn syrup. Moving around the space and into the crowd, the jar is tipped and the liquid pours out onto the floor. Aidana leaves a sticky sweet trail. Pouring syrup into the hands of audience members, she licks their fingers. Giving the jar to another audience member, she points suggestively. “Just pour wherever?” the woman asks. Nodding, Aidana breaks out into a smile as the syrup continues to be dribbled and snaked across the floor.

Retrieving a second mason jar filled with syrup she gives it away too, and gestures for the same action to be followed. Standing back with the rest of us, Aidana watches the two women with the jars snake their way through the audience and around the objects on the floor leaving a trail of sugar syrup as they go. Despite the language differences, she has generated a resonant connective power, and it is mesmerizing: watching these two people express aspects of themselves in the particular ways they take to this impromptu task. So mesmerizing in fact that a minute later we all seem to collectively realize that she has gone.

Aidana had easily slipped away.

Rico Chavez, De la serie variaciones sobre el vuelo. El cielo [From the series on flight. The sky] (photo by Henry Chan)

Rico Chavez, De la serie variaciones sobre el vuelo. El cielo [From the series on flight. The sky] (photo by Henry Chan)

A game About Thoughts: they have knees, they move

Kurt Johannessen, About Thoughts (photo by Henry Chan)

Kurt Johannessen, About Thoughts (photo by Henry Chan)

Kurt Johannessen is at it again. This time he’s ready to play a game: a game about framing, a game about language, a game about experimentation. A game About Thoughts.

“But, this wasn’t a game,” you might say if you were also in attendance last Saturday afternoon to watch Johannessen present his performance lecture About Thoughts to partner the launch of his book by the same name, and indeed you would be right, in a sense. A game is, generally speaking, an interactive activity inclusive of notions of play, rules, and competition. “But, Johannessen didn’t use these conditions,” you might say, and again you would be correct, more or less. However, I’m suggesting the Johannessen’s presentation, which illustrates his ostensive definition for how ‘thought’ behaves, uses a narrative metaphoric visual framework to compose a sort of game with our assumptions.

His talk presents a take on the semiotic and pragmatic properties of a thought. Giving crude visual form to the thought as a something shaped like a droopy kidney bean, Johannessen speaks of little thoughts that grow into slightly larger thoughts, and how they cluster like islands in what he calls ‘thought bags’. That is where they live.

“There are lots of thought bags around,” Johannessen says, explaining that there are areas between the bags too, and that the bags have surfaces which are transparent so that those thoughts at the edge can be seen while others can stay deep inside the bag so that they can be hidden—something like a superficial thought that is apparent versus a sort of hintergedanken or a thought way in the back of your mind, so to speak, that remains unclear.

“Thoughts duplicate,” he insists. “After a little while they can migrate if they’re at the surface of the thought bag,” explaining how one thought can move to many bags if they are in the same room, and how thought bags can link up to share thoughts and build them together. There is a limit to this growth though, Johannessen says, called ‘maximum about’, where some thoughts can’t link up to become the same kind.

Kurt Johannessen, About Thoughts (photo by Henry Chan)

Kurt Johannessen, About Thoughts (photo by Henry Chan)

Kurt Johannessen, About Thoughts (photo by Henry Chan)

Kurt Johannessen, About Thoughts (photo by Henry Chan)

Kurt Johannessen, About Thoughts (photo by Henry Chan)

Kurt Johannessen, About Thoughts (photo by Henry Chan)

Moving on to the anatomy of the thought, Johannessen indicates on the diagram how the thought has legs, stomach, and knees (which are the most important part since the knees are what allow them to move around, stay flexible, and communicate). Johannessen explains that thoughts have teeth between their legs and that they are cannibalistic. This is normal, he assures us, and is accepted in thought culture.

There are stubborn thoughts, which he describes as the thoughts that haven’t been chewed enough which grow inside another thought. Those thoughts in a thought are a mystery to the thought that ate the thoughts, and that those thoughts in the thought can burst out of the thought which is confusing for the thought that ate the thought. The thought didn’t have a thought about the stubbornness of that thought. Once out of the thought, those thoughts will just mingle, hanging with other thoughts, acting as though nothing happened.

Thoughts who have been thinking for a long time grow big, and end up moving less, so they don’t stay flexible. They get slow and develop a disease called ‘Sofa Thought.’ Like a wart, puffy and soft, a sofa thought grows on a thought, is very self-important, and infects the host thought. The host thought starts to only think about resting. The other thoughts start using this thought as a sofa. They lay down on the thought which is a dangerous sign. A thought that lies on the sofa thought can get so comfy it can get absorbed.

Johannessen also describes thought ‘energy theory’ — the energy from other thoughts creates the coming into being thought, causing a thought to just appear. “POOF.” And he outlines his thought about thought ‘historical duplication theory’ — in the thought bag there is an area of the past. In that area, there will be an old thought — and how ‘future duplication theory’ for thoughts takes place is the future space of the thought bag, though this theory has fewer believers, Johannessen says, even though he has “confirmed this is true.”

“Are there any questions?”

Johannessen has shown us a thought-experiment about the definitions of things like thoughts, and it addresses the ways we use context to give meaning to words; a conceptual puzzle to demonstrate how the meaning of a word, such as ‘thoughts’, presupposes our ability to use it in a way that also explains what it is. In this way my use of the term game also lends an interpretative edge to Johannessen’s activity, challenging the use of the word game as he is challenging our conceptions of what we think it means to have a thought.

Kurt Johannessen, About Thoughts (photo by Henry Chan)

Kurt Johannessen, About Thoughts (photo by Henry Chan)