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?
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.
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
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.
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:
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.”
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.
He whistled and he sang ’til the greenwoods rang,
And he won the heart of a lady.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.