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Today festival Éminence Grise Glenn Lewis performed the first portion of A Sweeping Statement down the streets of Toronto. Clad in a green jumpsuit with ‘HOPE Engineering’ cheerfully printed on the back, and armed with a dustbin, broom and his bright orange cap, Lewis walked amicably down the sidewalk, his garbage can bumping and rattling behind him. Pausing often to sweep up or grab trash castaways that caught his eye, he walked along Dundas and Queen Streets, weaving between pedestrians, cyclists and baby prams; reaching through fences; reflecting in storefronts and even momentarily passing under the gaze of stone angels outside a Catholic Church.
A bit surprising was the lack of garbage on the street—in fact, there were two others cleaning up the streets (a city worker and a community environmentalist) that we encountered on a walk that lasted less than two hours. I guess this is how Toronto is managing to keep clean!
Lewis harkens this work to a previous action of his on the streets of Vancouver in 1969, marking out city blocks with blue surveyor’s tape. This appeal of negotiating urban spaces also exists in A Sweeping Statement. He admits that observing others on the street acts as a secret pleasure, finding it enjoyable when others are able to find ways around obstacles, around the powers that be, by “creating little areas of freedom within everyday life; little free gestures.”
Today’s documentation will be paired with its twin, to be gathered on Monday, and the two will be projected side-by-side as part of Lewis’s final presentation: an Abyssinian sanctuary inspired by “Scoop,” a short story by Evelyn Waug. To be constructed at the Toronto Free Gallery, Lewis’s structure will be a lifelike model that reflects the sanctuary’s fascinating geometric architecture, and incorporating the trash that he has reappropriated/salvaged.
As a note, Lewis’s second walk will be held at 12 pm Monday October 27, moved due to unfavourable weather conditions. It will begin at Queen East and Dalhousie.
When I arrive at XPACE, there are already a lot of people there and there will be a great many more. Nearly 200 people in that somewhat small gallery—that gallery plus its classical basement. How is this opening night going to proceed, and how will it be (stage) managed?
Almost seamlessly, it transpired. I knew that Warren Arcand’s Nosferanook was intended for the basement, so who would go first? And there was a buzz about another performer—an addition to the programme. Well, surely he or she wouldn’t be the first act. So I look around the gallery. I see a platform with an overheard mike hanging, and I see two chairs a body’s length apart from one another. And then there is this blue cushion with a body positioning itself between the two chairs, with arms and legs reaching and even kicking out? Well, no it’s not a cushion. But the body inside the capsule attempts to do things but it’s stymied due to confinement. The audience watches the arms and the legs attempting to rise up, but this is not even a teaser. The audience chat among themselves.
The audience is in instructed to arrange itself in favour of two performers who are now on the platform. It’s a girl and a boy—Stacey Sproule and Randy Gagne. They lie down and put a foot in the other’s mouth—literally. The mike hangs overhead as they sing excerpts of familiar pop love songs. I recognize “I Think We’re Alone Now” and “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” Real schmaltz tunes. Randy’s closer to the tunes than Stacey, but they both have the other’s foot in their mouth so there we go. Sonny and Cher for the 21st century. Then they stand, they smooch, and both sing “How Deep is Your Love” by the Bee Gees. Very deep indeed, it seems. As the song peters out, the vocalizing becomes abstract, almost sound poetry. I like this, since love is abstract and not verbal.
After Stacey and Randy conclude their serenading, the blue capsule is now on the platform and it contains Will Kwan as Dr.V. And the V is short for…Viagra! And Dr.V. is now going to make like Istvan Kantor/Monty Cantsin and the Machine Sex Group and hump these filing cabinets. Well, I mean Viagra combined with inanimate objects—you can go forever with that combination. Dr.V sticks it in from every angle, just like in a good porno movie. He stops because he is satisfied, not because he is exhausted. The audience has recognized the parody/homage/piss take and there are great gusts of laughter. This performance was in fact titled Dr.V does the classics.
Now it is time for Nosferanook, but the crowd has to be divided in to three for capacity etcetera reasons. I get to be part of the second instalment. The basement is dank with minimal lighting, a halfway path is cleared and a big ghostly owl enters. The owl makes an extended entrance—perhaps he has been losing blood? The owl carries an axe or knife or a weapon—he eventually stands before the wall and begins swinging. The blunt instrument leaves marks in the wall and some chips fall out, but only chips. He keeps swinging and swinging, marking territory but not making headway. It becomes evident that he is going to do this for duration, and audience members are advised that they can leave whenever they wish to. Many audience members stay. Maybe there is more, maybe the image and the performance has established its own space and time and not everybody is in a rush to leave. In conversation about his working process during his residency, Warren Arcand mentioned the owl and the underworld netherworld of the warring gods and also a Rolling Stones song—”Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”—as threads he was working with, intending to stitch them into a tightly composed performance, along with the owl’s costume he was sewing and which he wore to striking effect. And these strands were all present in Arcand‘s performance; they became condensed and stripped down. Yes, the owl was knock knock knocking, on a door which no one was answering and on a long-standing barrier or wall. And it would take forever and forever to knock the wall down, but still one must keep on knocking, even when one can’t come in.
Back upstairs, what looked like a red mat or carpet had been laid out more or less where the platform had been. The Dutch artist Joost Nieuwenburg walked around this carpet or rug for a while until he sparked a brief flare below his feet. Then another flare, and another and another as he kept walking. Soon the flares had become a fire, and there was both smoke and singeing. When he walked off the carpet in his stylish black dress shoes, I moved closer and saw the matches placed vertically and evenly over the entire red playing field. The matches did stick up like nails, and I was indeed reminded of Gina Pane’s seminal performance Bed of Nails. Mattress of Nails? Nieuwenburg’s performance was titled Two surfaces in contact, and so they were. The shoes struck the matches and therefore combustion. The burning or singeing had formed what could have been a map of something, a ghost image. A ghost of a ghost. Dr.V. was not the only performer revisiting the classics.
It was time for the added performer—the mysterious guest. He was Christian Messier from Quebec. He stood tall on a campsite of sorts, with an at least half-consumed bottle of red wine and some sort of brick or log for company. He wore a white shirt that had already been slightly bloodied. He took the shirt off and put it back on. He repeated this tease many times. His pants looked like they might fall down, but they didn’t. He stretched out a lot. He had a nice body to stretch out with. After taking the shirt off yet again, he stretched it down on the floor or ground and inserted some tacks into the shirt. More nails. Then he put the shirt on again. He lay down and dropped the heavy object onto his chest, just missing his chin. He did this many times. He lit matches over his body and let them burn to their end. He poured white flour over his head and onto the ground. He exhaled the flour like a fire-breather, and then he drew blood from his chest and onto the floor. The floor was now a site of blood and flour. Considering the blood and flour in combination with the red wine, I thought I was watching a Robert Bly adaptation of Marina Abromovic’s Lips of St.Thomas.
But…Messier stood tall, shook off the flour, and some swirling strings became audible. It was a French Abba cover, and as the tempo accelerated, the performer started dancing and he sprinkled confetti, which baptized the front audience members. XPACE became a disco, with only the Disco God Ball missing. It was almost transcendent and it was beyond cornball. It was an unexpected cliché that really did work.
With throngs of people packed into the XPACE cultural centre, things were tight on 7a*11d’s opening night—a tightness of community and space that was mirrored throughout the night’s performances, which both relied on and parodied intimacy and immediacy.
To begin the proceedings, we were introduced to the large, pale blue, foam rhombus of Will Kwan’s Dr. V Does the Classics. For those in the audience who didn’t quite catch on right away (myself included), Kwan’s first act remained puzzling. Arms taut with tension and sneakers straining with effort, Dr V struggled on the floor, consistently “failing to levitate,” as festival-leader Johanna Householder explained to the crowd.
The audience was eager to support Dr. V, oohing and cheering whenever his legs made it off the ground, and letting out disappointed ohhhs when he invariably settled back down. However, we were able to claim our satisfaction in Kwan’s second act, coming together to share a collective chuckle as Dr. V’s meaning became much clearer. All he needed was a little bit of time to start taking effect. Once he got going, the strength of the infamous Little Blue Pill was readily apparent as he proceeded to thoroughly ravish an unassuming filing cabinet (both drawers!).
Between Kwan’s acts was the musical performance How deep is your love? by Randy Gagne and Stacey Sproule. The notion of intimacy was taken to another level as Gagne and Sproule used each other as instruments both musically and empirically to gauge the depths of love.
The first movement was a physical and auditory sculpture where the two were seated, each with their partner’s foot in their mouth, belting away muffled love songs. Undercutting the familiar, cliched lyrics was the impression of love as a duality, a precarious structure built equally on support and suppression. Both artists visibly struggled to maintain their difficult balance, physically holding each other up, yet at the same time creating an atmosphere of competition that was emphasized by their overlapping voices and the microphone, reminiscent of those used by wrestling match announcers, suspended above them.
Their second movement further highlighted the amorphous shape of love as the pair sang into each other, seemingly vibrating each other’s vocal chords in a piece somewhere between duet, asphyxiation and whale song.
To encounter Warren Arcand, presenting his piece Nosferanook, we then descended into the darkness of the basement, a space carved out of raw brick and concrete whose low ceiling and draped fabric evoked the atmosphere of a cave embedded in history. Emerging from the shadows in white furs, Nosferanook possessed a goblin’s face and a man’s machete, and it was a single light that pulled him across the room to a bare wall where he began to strike at the concrete. The clanging of metal on stone continued unceasingly as powder and chips began to build up at his feet.
He chipped away slowly at the foundation, at the wall behind the wall; at the social and physical barriers that we find already in place, that appear immobile and immutable. Although it may seem that this act is more symbolic than concrete (no pun intended), Nosferanook’s labour leaves behind a visible pattern of contact, a physical trace of where his blade carved into the stone a complicated glyph to mark his passage.
The performance of Joost Nieuwenburg is another that urged us to lean in close. Two surfaces in contact was comprised of two halves: the passive potential of thousands of matches embedded into red plastic, and the kinetic/active energy of Nieuwenburg himself. Just by walking atop his match-riddled platforms, he pushed the balance of energy from one side to the other, wavering in lines of tension.
As he made his rounds along the boards, he scuffed the match heads occasionally, igniting trails of flame, smoke and frissons of danger with his heels. The audience gasped and oohed accordingly. At first there was no overtly visible difference between those that had been struck and those that hadn’t; all four boards were hypersaturated with the potential that each match carried. In addition to the actual flames, the mind rushed to imagine the chain reactions that could occur and the possible sight of every square inch of plastic up flames.
Yet as he walked faster and stuck his heels more deliberately, Nieuwenburg’s channeled and directed energy was funneled into flames that spread in a tight pattern, melting the red plastic into a dull grey stain that crept across the boards like that of a water-damaged ceiling tile. And we were satisfied with the matches left unburnt, recognizing that they preserved the fine balance upon which Nieuwenburg was walking.
Special guest Christian Messier wrapped up the festival’s first night with a endurance performance that exposed the body’s rituals of undoing. Using wine, tacks, flour and matches, Messier offered himself to the audience in a series of physical images drawing on Christ-like imagery.
He posed, he revealed, he endured. But every act was coupled with its un-act: wine drunk was spit up; shirts worn were undone; matches lit were extinguished; pain endured was transformed into not-pain. The pain endured was simultaneously emphasized as present by his bodily reaction, but also was rendered absent as his mental will denied it and made it into not-pain. The very acts of endurance that relied on highlighting the physicality of the body served to counteract, suppress and unravel the body’s defining characteristic of being sensory.
Undoing the seriousness of the sacrifice he had given us, Messier ended on a positive note, dancing along to ABBA and throwing confetti to remind the audience that there is more to life than enduring the physical—and that there is always time to sing and dance.
There are many exciting performances lined up for tomorrow! Look forward to creative resident Sylvette Babin’s, Norbert Klassen’s, Risa Kusumoto’s and Pia Lindy’s performances at XPACE in the evening. And don’t forget that Chaw Ei Thein will be continuing her mobile mural in the Toronto Free Gallery from 12 to 7 pm, and that Glenn Lewis will be performing the first portion of A Sweeping Statement at 12 pm starting at Shaw and Dundas West.
Warren Arcand is one of 7a*11d’s 2008 Creative Residents, a seasoned performance artist who can be expected to use this opportunity to gather, sew, develop, design, and score. On the festival’s opening night, Thursday October 23 at XPACE, Arcand will be presenting Nosferanook. This new work has already been in serious development, but it will develop further in front of an audience. Arcand sees audiences as his co-celebrants.
Nosferanook is a cross-fertilization. Nosferatu meets Nanook of the North. The perfectly legitimate love child of F.W. Murnau and Robert Flaherty. Nosferatu is a veteran at concealment or disguises. Murnau circumvented Bram Stoker and the Copyright Police by declaring a bat to be a rat. And Arcand will have the blood-sucker wearing the cloak of an owl, a rather unique animal indeed. Picasso’s final self-portrait was that of an owl’s face. Owls are predators without sense of smell. Talk about sustenance and survival.
“Nanook and Nosferatu; they strain against their frames—being impossible beings—untenable in many ways, yet persistent.” (from the festival catalogue) Are the dynamite duo and therefore their child allergic to systems? Well, they are both survivors and sustainers—it’s more like systems can’t tolerate or accommodate them. Arcand personally distinguishes between methods and systems—methods are intrinsic, they are in the self and in relationships between self and others and also objects. Systems are externally imposed—they must be navigated and negotiated, outwitted by stealth and wit. Systems are labyrinths and underworlds—a complex network of deities such as Demeter and Hades and Zeus, and not just those battling gods and humans but also Nature. Summer needs to reclaim time and space from the Eternal Winter and its consequent freezing..
Arcand is a performance artist with a serious theatrical background. Theatre when it’s visually interesting involves disguise. Performance often involves persona which may not be disguise but which is not a fixed essential self or a singular voice. Arcand plays with voice(s)—he plays with parallels and tensions between what is oral and what is written and what is musical. Music time is not unlike object time—it is sculptural and not always calculable. Performers and audiences share time and space when everything the performer has set in process is working, when the performer and performance are creating a structure without a rigid pre-determination. There is a trust involved here—a trust outside of the performer’s self. God and The Lover make for good structures, The Self makes for a bad structure, or formlessness with limited content.
In conversation, I am impressed by Arcand’s comprehension of body . He is always thinking, which is a bodily act. He is a good talker but he knows that language doesn’t always complement thinking and moving. Such is characteristic of a performing performance artist. Warren Arcand has been a man of many voices, faces, wigs, and costumes. With Nosferanook he will be stripping everything down. One wig and one costume. But they will be certainly grand.