After the audience is finished processing the events of Chaw Ei Thein‘s performance in the Toronto Free Gallery, we turn our attention to the other half of the room which is dominated by a large structure made out of lattice work and wood. A giant square base morphs into an octagonal second layer, which (once the performance has started) will be dominated at its top by a skeletal dome.
Glenn Lewis, renowned both as an artist in a variety of forms and as an environmentalist, has weathered many artistic movements over his many years in the performance art world, though he muses that he does not belong to a specific group or movement any more. While he does not perform very often any more, having concentrated his efforts on his gardens where he breeds lilies, he tells me that the structure he has created recalls themes in his life involving shapes, circles and knots working in on themselves. This theme encompasses performances ranging from his very first to the hexagonal house he has built in British Columbia.
Having started his artistic endeavours in visual art and ceramics, he cites his interest in performance stemming from a workshop led by Deborah Hay that he attended while part of the intermedia movement: a movement concerned with crossing established boundaries by combining different media, forms and sources of inspiration (dream, movement, material) to create poetic combinations in art. At this workshop, he created his first performance in which he opened up an umbrella full of flour and raked the flour into swirls and shapes (in a fashion similar to Japanese rock gardens) in time to a radio playing in his pocket.
In the performance we see today, Lewis, clad in his green jumpsuit and orange hat, begins by constructing a tower in the centre of the structure out of various found objects (including an old stereo system, a CD rack and an impromptu bird cage), at the top of which sits a purple and yellow stuffed bird. From the top of the cage sprouts eight grey foam tubes, which Lewis balances on nails to create the domed ceiling of the sanctuary. A CD of Abyssinian music plays in the background as the two videos of the walking/sweeping portion of this performance are displayed side by side on the wall, and we watch the dual Lewises as they progress along the sidewalks of Toronto.
In my interview with Lewis about his piece, I mentioned that I felt that he went out of his way to create an atmosphere of help and positivity in these walks, emphasized by his jumpsuit reading ‘HOPE Engineering’ and his random acts of kindness. I was curious if he felt that his art stemmed from a desire to create positive social relations. His answer was yes, but not necessarily in a conscious way; in fact, no more deliberately than his everyday life. About the potential for performance art, and art in general, to change society for the better, he would like to think this is possible, but added that it’s probably not a good idea for artists to be in any sort of political power. He does hope, again in an offhand kind of way, that his performance would provide the audience with an awareness of the sheer mass of the commodity life we lead and all the garbage we produce on a daily basis. But, he emphasized, preaching is not at all the intention of the piece—the piece is more like a collage, incorporating aspects of the street with aspects of the festival’s ideals of art and performance.
And indeed, as he strews bags of garbage around the structure, his performance is much more light-hearted and fun-loving than my questions about social change. He almost revels in the garbage as he shuffles in circles inside the structure, clearing a path. It is the vision of the sanctuary in Evelyn Waugh’s short story that he wants to recreate, especially its unexpected nature, the masses of junk and the feeling of timelessness, of motion stopped. The structure does set a striking image with the homeliness of the lattice walls combined with the black metal of the central tower and the piles of trash. We aren’t quite sure how to processes this combination of images, as is evidenced in some audience members’ reluctance to join Lewis inside the structure for his circle dance (although this is probably also people’s reluctance to get their shoes dirty). But, after gathering up those brave audience members he can, they dance together with him around the central tower, kicking up the garbage as they go first in one direction and then the other.
Overall, Lewis stated earlier to me that, if anything, he wanted to give the audience an experience, something that they wouldn’t normally do—like walking through a very odd sand. A sand constructed at the crossroads of daily life and history, between discarding and reclaiming. He wanted to make a hidden experience, and I believe that the most important hidden part of this experience is how celebratory of life it is, despite the potential to read the piece as a criticism of modern society. Lewis is not someone who disparages or destroys, but someone who supports people and life through his art.
I begin the longest day of the 7a*11d International Festival of Performance Art—the Day of the Dead—out at the Toronto Free Gallery on Bloor just east of Lansdowne. I enter the gallery for the first time since last Tuesday, and Chaw Ei Thein’s mural on the west wall has nearly tripled in both scale and detail. She has left a space slightly past the mural’s centre—a space for what I wonder as I watch the artist print out a text at the top of the mural:
“In this dark and closed space = suffering = getting my body = my body + spirit + possibilities for…..reality? = freedom from Fear = Performance artist = …+…=…+…=…+…= Quiet River”
An audience begins to fill the gallery. This audience is a mixture of 7a*11d staff and guests and people from the neighbourhood, many of whom are of Burmese origin. The audience is directed to the back room of the gallery, where eight lit candles surround a black cardboard box. People cease chattering among themselves in this back room—the box bears more than a slight resemblance to a coffin or perhaps to something gothic. There is an atmosphere of reverence as well as one of dread. At first I think there might be a light source inside the box, but then I realize that the illusion is courtesy of the lit candles.
The audience is still for an extended duration (except for those flashing and documenting et cetera), and so is the box. Then the performer inside the box begins to push leaflets of paper through holes in the south side of the box. This is primarily visible to spectators on that side of the box, and this process goes on for several minutes at least. Chaw now shifts to the east side of the box, and soon audience members begin to pick up the papers and read or look at them. I wonder about the etiquette of this curiosity, yet this section of the performance could be read as referring to methods of smuggling information out of a totalitarian state, or any state without free press and with maximum security/surveillance. After several minutes of this process, Chaw began to push her way through and out of the box and onto the floor. Festival organizers moved the lit candles away as she crawled out of the box and onto the floor, completely covered in a black cloth garment which made vision at best minimal.
Chaw Ei Thein crawled through the front gallery space toward her mural on the west wall. At the foot of the mural, there were several small paint bottles. Chaw dipped her right hand (covered by the cloth or cloak) into the black paint and wrote the letter B in roughly the centre of the white space on her canvas. She found spaces for the letters U, R, M, and A; and then for the words WHAT and NEXT. After she finished this action, some people thought it was the conclusion of the performance and tentatively began clapping. I don’t think this was out of fatigue or certainly not boredom; it was acknowledgment of major achievement. But there was more to Chaw Ei Thein’s performance. She inched her way out from underneath the black garment, slowly donned a Burmese dress and a red scarf, and then indicated the end of her performance. She received richly deserved applause.
The afternoon’s performance was by Vancouver-based Glenn Lewis, another of the Creative Residents. Two projected documentations of Lewis wearing his green worker’s suit and picking up debris from Toronto’s streets and sidewalks played on the east wall of the main gallery. Lewis set himself up in his Abyssinian gazebo, with its wooden lattice, and began assembling a sculptural object composed of objects he had found, kept, and prioritized. A generic crate served as a base or foundation, a CD and radio set was then placed diagonally on top of the base, a strange-looking ladder came next, and then a birdcage at the top of some eight stringy arms (but with some weird toy with a big open mouth in the cage). An octopus of course came to mind—or some weird monster with tentacles. Lewis then proceeded to scatter five clear bags full of debris in each corner and then in the centre of the gazebo.
After clearing a circular pathway, Lewis danced a “Ring Around the Rosey” and then found audience members to join in the celebration. He had seven inside the gazebo going round and round and round. Then he exited with his followers, and invited anyone who wished to do a round to enter the gazebo and do one. There were no gamers, so the performance came to its natural conclusion. Ring around the Leaning Tower of Octopus?
Shortly after Lewis’s conclusion, it was time to go outside or in front of the gallery. Gustavo Alvarez Lugo had already made a petit installation on the sidewalk, with a small object-holder of sorts, two toy bubble-blowers, and a small but ominous snake figure. The performance artist was wearing his trademark MUSGUS yellow boiler-suit, but today he was favouring a blue wrestling hat. After checking his sidewalk set-up, Gustavo began running on the sidewalk, jumping over his installation. He did this back and forth for a while, eventually for shorter distances until he stopped. Pedestrians walked around the performance and the sidewalk installation. Many stopped and watched. He shouted out SHOKWAME HAS COME. Shokwame is an evil man, a witch, a questionable magician.
He retrieved a black string and wrapped it around an audience member’s lower left leg. He found other semi-consenting observers at four corners from each other and tied them all to his central installation. The Shokwame has come. He caressed his blue wrestling-helmet, then removed it and began to cut it open along the seams. He now had a mask with eyes, nose, and mouth. He added it to the street-sculpture. Now he lay down, blew a few tentative bubbles, again announced that the Shokwame has come, and then concluded the performance. A young bystander/observer asked if he could have the mask. Gustavo declined the request, but informed the boy that he has other masks. This is November 2, the Mexican Day of the Dead.
In the evening, I enter XPACE and observe Sakiko Yamaoka arranging eating and drinking utensils on a long table. She has rows of plastic glasses, Styrofoam cups, cheap wine or juice glasses, and coffee mugs. She is pouring coffee grains into the coffee cups and red wine into the juice glasses. More red wine, I remark to myself. She also poured water into the Styrofoam cups.
A durational performance by Boston-based Marilyn Arsem is in progress downstairs in the dungeon. I eagerly walk downstairs and am impressed by a simple but effective tableau. Overgrown flowers spill over a red clay vase while a woman lies very still on the floor, with long brown hair flowing well on top of her head. A four-note musical motif repeats itself—it is the sound of Chinese wind-chimes and it appears to be activated by a heater. The chimes seem to be singing “Are You Sleeping.” Water very slowly is dripping from the pipes in the ceiling—this is also no accident. I think Gothic, Day of the Dead, and Murder Mystery installations. I plan to return at the first intermission.
In the introduction to Sakiko Yamaoka’s performance, Paul Couillard refers to this artist’s previous site-specific performances during the festival, Best Place to Sleep (Come with Me) and Wind From Sky (Human Beings Are Plants). Sakiko not only coordinated sleep-ins in financial institutions, she “impersonated” a plant in three variety or convenience stores (I regret missing these performances, but my colleague Elaine Wong did witness at least some of them.) The artist held up a statement:
Human beings are alive Plants are alive Therefore human beings are plants
Despite wondering how perhaps animals fitted into this equation, I was intrigued by the nonsensically rational premise. I found a strategic viewing position as Sakiko began to move her dessert-sized plates into positions behind the glasses and cups and then press down on the plates. This pressure had the effect of moving the entire arrangement forward, until the plastic glasses began to fall onto the floor. It was quite fascinating to watch Sakiko’s body positions as she arranged the plates into the most effective positions at the back of the table, while more and more plastic glasses were falling and water was beginning to drip from the Styrofoam cups. Soon Styrofoam cups began to fall to the ground. The first landed vertically, but that was only the first. I thought at first she might continue this process until all of the plastic glasses and Styrofoam cups were off the table, but it became apparent that the entire table had to be cleared. Then, since the initial juice glasses did not break upon landing, I thought her pressure might be so delicate as to avoid breakage. I thought that might be one of her intentions. But the falling glasses and the subsequent coffee cups began shattering and shattering, and the water puddle on the floor was joined by wine and coffee beans.
As she approached the final clearance of the table, Sakiko had to lean further and further across that table to push the contents off. I did think of a plant that might be sprawling out of control, or might be dying and losing its shape and its elegance. But this impression was countered by the performer’s need to clear that table, and to press harder in order to do so.
When the table was finally cleared, this was not the end of the performance but rather the end of an initial movement. Next, Sakiko used her body to push the empty table up through the gallery toward the front door, but stopping in front of the admissions desk. After wiping the table clean with paper leaflets, she stood up on the table, with a plastic bag from which she retrieved plastic bags, folded neatly and signed Sakiko Y. 2008. She handed them out to willing members of the audience, who were instructed to shake them and make noise. Sakiko conducted the audience like an orchestra, or perhaps she was playing around with the dynamics of crowd control. Or perhaps this was now the wind from the sky—the shaking sounds from the bags invoked wind and sometimes rain. The audience surrendered to her elements and obeyed her gentle commands—softer, louder, fortissimo, up, down, et cetera, Finally there was a denouement, and the performance was finished.
This was a superbly involving performance. It contained ritual, destruction, reconstruction, and rejuvenation. It may indeed have been analogous to a plant (or animal?) shedding leaves, shedding excess, changing habitats and seasons, and regenerating. Whether or not it can be read allegorically, it was a pleasure to observe, even though I resisted my own temptation to shake.
Since a break was announced, I almost ran downstairs to see where Marilyn Arsem’s performance had evolved to. It was a beautifully calm environment compared to the jostling for positions during Sakiko’s performance, and Marilyn had moved along the string or wire slanted across the east/west axis of the downstairs space. The string attached to the plant had become more visible, and I and others wondered whether she was activating the strings or the strings were pulling her. Her hair was not stretched out as much from her head now, but she was in a static (and seemingly unconscious) position. The chimes continued to ask the performer if she was asleep.
By now Helsinki-based artist Annette Arlander was set up and ready to begin. Arlander had linked two plinths vertically and placed an old birch nest of tuulenpesä onto the plinths. Tuulenpesä are an assemblage of assorted elements—witches brooms, messy conglomerates of branches, all caused by a fungus named Taphrina. Such an assemblage is known as a wind nest, which was the title of Arlander’s performance. Tuulenpesa often grow in birch trees, and Arlander had kept a large wind nest from a birch tree that had been damaged by a storm on Harakka Island in Helsinki, where the artist has a studio. An image of the island’s landscape was projected onto a screen—a shadowy figure was seen against a tree stump from a tree that had also been damaged by this storm.
Arlander’s practice has for some time concentrated on what she calls landscape performance. Not only does an audience see video documentation and found objects idiosyncratic to particular locations with particular natural forces; the artist evokes her own and others’ bodily presence in these specific environments and intends to share that presence. Arlander announced that she would be using a musical landscape/composition titled “Enter The Unexpected,” by Aditi. Then she placed the wind nest assemblage onto her back, handed out headphones to some but not all audience members, and positioned herself in a meditative lookout position in relation to her projection. The headphones were branching out from her body, and some audience members who had chosen to attach them into their ears found themselves being drawn closer to the performer. I chose to remain stationary when I was offered headphones by another audience member, and then I came to realize that I would be missing a key component of the landscape or performance if I did not wear phones. So I did, and I heard the artist’s voice reciting an original poem “Wind nest…place of refuge…” The poem was only a minute’s length; it was meant to be experienced only for that duration and certainly not throughout the entire performance and/or installation. As Arlander remained relatively static in her contemplative position, I became aware of the live wind sounds that were elemental to the artist’s soundscape (in addition to the trance-like music). In comparison to many of the add-a-part improvisational performances of the festival and also many of those performances concerned with pushing bodies to extremities, Arlander’s performance was slow, contemplative, and about listening as much as seeing. It involved and also invoked the so-called lower senses—smell, and touch. Wind Nest – variation nicely counterbalanced Marilyn Arsem’s slowly unraveling spatial performance that was occurring concurrently in the downstairs space.
The final performer of both the evening and the festival was none other than Gustavo “Musgus” Alvarez Lugo himself. This time performing inside a gallery space rather than on the street or in a public location, Gustavo had assembled one of his trademark altar-installations on the floor. He enters banging a drum on its side with a mallet-stick, and he wore a facial mask on the back of his head. He moves toward audience members while banging the drum. Then he walks up to the west gallery wall furthest from the street and writes CHABOCHI on that wall.
The word CHABOCHI loosely translates as outsider, or foreigner, or person outside of polite or acceptable society (suspect-immigrants, suspected terrorists, persons with AIDS, lepers, et cetera). “Chabochi is a concept that the Tarahumanas (indigenous to the region of Chihuahua) use to determine the mestizo, the one that is not like them, who is not of them, the one that is different.” (7a*11d catalogue, 2008, p. 37)
Gustavo lights the contents of a cup which is part of his little shrine or altar, and uses paper to increase the burning. He picks up the cup and transports it over to the wall under his writing, lets the fire extinguish, and asks the audience “Who is Chabochi?” He wants a volunteer—he wants someone else to declare themselves other or outside. He procures willing participants from the audience—Istvan Kantor, Annette Arlander, others. (I let my guard down and volunteer.). Those who admit or declare themselves CHABOCHI are handed plastic flag-papers similar to the ones Gustavo had used in his Museum subway station installation, and instructed to tape them to the gallery wall and write their names on the wall at the top of the papers. When all the volunteers have done so, Gustavo then inverts the dynamics—the balance of his equation. He asserts that there is no Chabochi, that there should be no more Chabochis, and that there is one world. Then he says thank you, and the performance and the performances of the 2008 7a*11d festival are now history.
The Day of the Dead had been observed, and now the Day of the Dead had drawn to its conclusion.
As the crowd emerged into the Toronto Free Gallery, we saw creative resident Chaw Ei Thein‘s finished mural. In addition to what I have already described in previous posts, the artist had now addressed the other half of the canvas, incorporating an embryo surrounded by bloody hand-prints, purple people linking arms to create a line across the mural, and a blue woman, being encroached upon by a demon, with a dove emerging from her mouth. A mural of bold contrast and fantastical colours, Chaw Ei’s work presented themes of imploring hands and silent eyes.
On paper above the mural was written “Quiet River = In this dark + closed space = suffering – getting my body = my body + spirit + possibilities for …… = reality ? = freedom from Fear = being Performance Artist = …. + …… + ….. = … + ……… + ……… = Quiet River”
Eventually, we were led into the back room of the gallery, in the centre of which sat a large cardboard box, painted black, with eight candles in a circle around it. The audience gathered tightly into the space and the stillness was overwhelming—the shuffling of bodies was stifling in the room. After a very long moment, we heard scratchings, shufflings from inside the box: the sound of crumpling paper and shifting cardboard. A hole began to emerge in the side of the box, and soon another hole on another side. From this second hole, crumpled paper was pushed through—scads of it, onto the floor. After a few individuals came up to take some paper and read what was written on it, one of the members of the Toronto Burma community took it upon himself to bring handfuls around the room. A feeding frenzy (or rather, a reading frenzy) began as everyone in the room was flattening out the papers—photocopies of news articles regarding the actions of the military junta in Burma, and the ineffectual international outrage—and still the papers kept coming out of the box.
But soon the papers stilled, and more ripping could be heard. The box was being torn apart from the inside; the hole on the side was getting bigger and bigger, and black cloth was pushing out. After several attempts, Chaw Ei emerged, encased entirely in a long black body bag. She writhed and wriggled free of the box and groped her way out of the room, clutching at audience members’ ankles and banging walls in her desperate attempt to escape. She emerged into the main gallery, still reaching blindly, until she was able to find her mural and the paints set up in front of the blank space left in the centre of the canvas.
The emotion was overwhelming as we watched the artist, still trapped in her body bag, open the paints and use her cloth-covered hands to smear letters across the mural spelling “BURMA what next?” After this Chaw Ei was finally able to shed her mobile prison—but even still, she exchanged her salmon tank top and black pants for the traditional (and often culturally enforced) clothing of Burmese women. With tears still fresh on her cheeks, she handed out articles to the audience about the brain drain in Burma, the trend in young people who are able to get their educations abroad and never return to help their old country. Quiet River is an ordeal from which Chaw Ei has been able to emerge, but even still the images and emotions are haunting.
Robin Poitras began the day’s performances with a presentation of some times three alongside Brenda Cleniuk and Leanne Lloyd. They collected in front of the Design Exchange, a single serious line of black accented in brass and red leather. The premise of the piece was simple: the three artists sat on wooden benches, with black umbrellas open and horses’ bells draped across their legs, using the motion of their bodies to sound the bells. The response it evoked was much more complex.
The image that I saw in their performance was of three Apollonian priestesses/Oracles intertwined with the three witches of “Macbeth.” Heralding out a coming prophecy, and deliberately linked to the fluctuating stock exchange, the sober act continued in the back courtyards of the financial district. The trio made tighter and tighter circles as they continued to perform—something big was coming, and we should all be prepared.
In any case, the visual impact of the piece complemented the aural chords, as the sets of bells mingle and chimed. Each performer shook at her own pace, creating her own pattern of notes; they were connected but individual, inseparable but independent. Mimicking the bells of the stock exchange, the bells of the performance sped up and slowed down, alternately marking out strict tempos and rushing through jumbles of notes.
At the end of the performance, the artists gathered their materials, stool under one arm and bells and umbrella hung carefully on the other, hand outstretched as if waiting for a sign. They walked slowly through the same CIBC that had Sakiko Yamaoka so worried the other day, and brought their performance full circle to the street.
Jason Lim set the Halloween tone for the evening as he performed a durational work just outside XPACE. Standing with a trio of glasses under each foot, he drew black thread from a large spool and draped it loosely on his hand, his arms moving back and forth as if he were an automated anti-spinning machine. As he progressed, pausing occasionally to check its size and watch it flutter in the wind, the variation in the lengths of thread took on the appearance of a wig of human hair. Which was exactly Lim’s intention as in the finale of his performance he donned the wig (shot through with threads of red) and carefully kicked out the glasses from beneath his feet until he could balance no longer.
The evening’s indoor performances began with Don Simmons‘ Picked you out of my pocket and death was the door prize, a bit of a spectacle for the gallery. (Forgive me for not having the proper vocabulary to describe this piece!) Three stunt bikers rode into the studio space slowly, dressed in hooded whites and black dirt masks, while Simmons stood at his audio booth and free-handed the audio layer of the performance.
Street ambience, howling wind and effects like smashing glass and honking horns layered themselves as the bikers lined up and performed stunts one at a time. Every so often all three would ride up toward the edge of the audience, as if to leap over them, but pulled back at the last moment. I wasn’t sure if the audio was reacting to the cyclists or vice versa, but as the riders progressed through their stunts, the layers of the audio got thicker and harsher until all audio and light dropped. A projection came up on the back wall, describing the process of leaving ghost bikes: bicycles painted white and left at accident sites as homages, as eulogies, to mark the passage of fallen cyclists around the world. The written text explained the vulnerability of a cyclist in a process of introspection, and the contrast between action and stillness, between audio and silence, marked the moment all the more sharply.
From the window of the gallery came a durational installation from Natasha Bailey & Danielle Williams. The floor of the window nook was littered with electronic correspondence and on the back wall hung a painter’s jumpsuit, latex gloves, a pair of white socks, and a paintbrush. On a stool sat a bucket of flour paste.
Into this seen unseen scene, the two artists emerged clad only in strategically placed scraps of papier-mâché. Taking their places on the raised floor, their hands clasped and their bodies pressed against the glass, the duo struck an image in the window. Mahan Javadi entered the picture, dressed a bit like an exterminator without the gas mask, and slowly began to entomb the artists against the glass with their own words. At first the pair were free to talk, but as the layer of paper moved further up their bodies, they were stifled into stillness, eyes closed and almost mummified.
This shared experience, similar to Angelika Fojtuch‘s last night, read as a comment on human relationships, on what they can weather and how easily they can be buried. We are reminded again that relationships are an endurance. The artists are on a search “for honest communication” (as per their self-description in the catalogue), and yet even this live action is mediated by the history of all the text and words that have transpired between them. In the end, though, Bailey and Williams were able to tear free of their confines and revel in the reality of their interaction, knowing that they had weathered at least this much together.
The technical phantasmagoria of Sini Haapalinna bore an apt name in KALEIDOSCOPOPSPECTACAL Live Cinematic Trans Flux, as the gallery became a playground of light, sound and video effects that I must admit are right up my alley. Using an audio effects unit, a series of contact microphones, a light box and a live video feed with programming (delays, inversions, etc.), Haapalinna created a series of abstract sound and image vignettes that warped the frame of commonplace objects (bowls of water, plastic toys) into an epic document of the crumbling of life’s structures.
As the visual and aural images distorted and layered atop each other, each sound and image invoked another series of sounds and image—nothing was simply what it was, but was a metaphor, an allusion to other worlds. Clinking bowls became a procession of monks’ chimes. Piling bubbles became a mountain of fish eggs while the sprinkles used to break them appeared as a spreading bacterial invasion. Bird calls were reverberated into a haunted forest, and empty bullet casings became bombs as the land of the dinosaurs was bombed to smithereens by army men.
Time slowed and swirled in the projected image as photographic slides
were placed on the lightbox and the camera pressed right up against them
to create a composite cityscape in which the statue of liberty
decomposed slowly on the screen into the ghostly image of the LED lights
strapped to Haapalinna’s body as she whirled before the camera. And
time reversed on itself as she used a laser pointer to create the look
of burnt celluloid in a supremely digital medium.
The final performance of the night was BBB Johannes Deimling‘s No rose without a thorn. Unceremoniously, he blindfolded himself with his sweater—and the blindfold continued as he took off each article of his clothing and wrapped it around his head. He even included his shoes, using four pieces of twine to hold the mass together.
Then he began scratching himself furiously, raising red lines and drawing blood from his skin before finally wiping himself down with a small napkin. Blind and bloody, he folded the napkin into a haphazard flower and proffered it to the closest audience member, though it took three tries before Haapalinna stood to accept the blossom. Deimling had become his own thorn, commenting on the often self-destructive nature of love and how the idea of blind self-sacrifice, while romantic enough, I suppose, in novels, becomes out of place in reality where awkward silence usually reigns.
At twelve noon sharp, Robin Poitras presented an outdoor performance on a lovely pre-Halloween afternoon in downtown Toronto’s financial district. Poitras formed a trio with two other female artists—Brenda Cleniuk and Leanne Lloyd (both from Regina). Dressed in identical black outfits and wearing comfortable red shoes, they held umbrellas over their heads in unusually sunny weather and fastened belts hosting bells around each leg. The three-piece orchestra would sit in wooden stools in different site-specific arrangements and shake their bodies enough so that the bells would ring harmoniously. The ringing was particularly sonorous at the performance’s first location—in front of the Design Exchange (which had originally been the stock exchange). The ringing commenced at noon—high noon. Ringing bells of course carry many associations—meeting time, feeding time, mess time as it is called in the military. The stock market’s daily opening is announced by ringing bells, as is its daily closing. The stock market has of course been oscillating quite wildly in recent times—the stock market has been downright Fluxist.
The closer the performers could sit to each other, the more harmonious the bells. In front of the Design Exchange they were in one of my favourite keys—that of D, and the performers’ movements synchronized wonderfully. When the performers moved across the street to a deserted fountain area, they had to sit further apart from each other and some of the intensity was lost. But they could sense this so they picked up the slack, enough to attract the attention of a security guard who requested that they relocate. He had been dispatched to remove them from the property, but a compromise was achieved. Therefore, Poitras and her collaborators moved up to another level, and then they walked through them lobby of a large CIBC bank. Would they disturb that peace? (On an earlier day this week, another 7a*11d artist—Sakiko Yamaoka—did conduct or lead a sleep-in in various banks, including this one.) No, but people did stare. Perhaps the three women belonged to some religious cult? Or maybe a band? The three performers were definitely on their way to somewhere—they walked with intention.
In the evening it was time for another series of performances at XPACE. Prior to the indoor (and window) performances, there was a nicely intimate piece by Jason Lim outside the gallery. I missed the beginning, but when I arrived Jason was unspooling (de-spooling?) a roll of industrial strength black string. He was standing on six glasses. Opposite Jason, Norbert Klassen was unspooling a red spool, not standing on six or any number of glasses. This continued for a while, and I looked at the papers and props set up in the gallery window in anticipation of a scheduled performance by Natasha Bailey and Danielle Williams titled seen unseen. When I turned around to see Jason Lim’s performance, Norbert had excused himself and Jason’s black string was inter-threaded with red string. As I so often do with relatively informal durational performances, I walked elsewhere while intending to return later. When I returned, Jason was now wearing the mass of black string as a shaggy, almost Rastafarian wig over his eyes and he had a string with leaves dangling onto the ground from his upper body. His balance gradually became precarious and he eventually lost his footing from two of his foundation glasses. Thus the performance had to conclude.
After watching Natasha Bailey and Danielle Williams mouthing something sweetly inaudible to each other in the window while wearing sparse scraps of paper taped with some Plaster of Paris-like and gooey substance to their bodies, a performance by Toronto-based Don Simmons was announced.
A man whom I recognized as Simmons stood behind a laptop on a plinth and a sound collage began. Simmons was wearing a white athletic suit with a hood and a black cloth over his mouth. Three bicyclists entered from the street door, identically dressed with Simmons and with each other. The cyclists rode toward the audience together, and then in competition with each other. They took turns at one-upmanship, riding like skateboard kids, riding like motorcyclists with their wheelies and whatnots.
Simmons’ sound collage was richly detailed. He combined motor and crowd noises, and an interesting dislocation or distance developed between the prerecorded crowd reactions and those of the audience, who were somewhat amused but impressed with the riders’ agility. But the riders came closer and closer to wiping out, and then the lights went down. So did the sound—completely down and off. A text was projected—a rather lengthy text acknowledging the ongoing bicycle fatalities on Toronto’s and other streets and spoken from the perspective of somebody committed to the group Advocacy for Respect for Cyclists, or ARC. The text indicates that the speaker dutifully attends memorials for fallen cyclists, even though he does not know any of the dead. Whatever, he still feels a need to be there. The contrast between the live and dangerous and the elegiac in Simmons’ performance was considerable, and it was the prime intention of this performance. There was an effective contrast between what was live and vulnerable, and what it was like to be sitting in a movie theatre and taking in plot and/or information with the lights down and everything confined to the screen. Simmons’ performance was titled Picked you out of my pocket and death was the door prize. The door prize is an award given to motorists who violate a cardinal road rule and fail to look before opening their vehicle doors.
The next performance was by Helsinki-based Sini Haapalinna, who crouched on the floor in front of a surface containing various objects and also in front of a small video camera. There was a screen on the wall behind her. She began placing objects in the camera’s field and playing with them, creating moving pictures. She also would make sounds with various objects and play the sounds against the pictures. Sini was highly skilled at layering images. She performed an extended section with a simple water bowl that she could multiply and alter the textures of by playing with the camera but also water itself—skimming it and even splashing it a little. She blew bubbles into the water bowl and achieved a wonderful lava-like texture. She used filters or screens, she moved like a slow dancer in front of the screen with LEDs after setting enough images and sound in motion. She added parts on top of added parts. Much of her performance—KALEIDOSCOPOPSPECTACAL—consisted of layering parts (both sight and sound) in top of already added sounds and then finding another object to explore—to see how it might generate images and sounds. The effects were often striking, but the performance did go on for too long.
The final performance was by Berlin-based BBB Johannes Deimling, in collaboration with FADO Performance Art Centre of Toronto. This untitled performance was very effective due to its relative simplicity. After announcing that only members of 7a*11d could document his performance, Deimling stood centre playing area and began systematically removing his garments. He would blindfold himself with his clothes, wrapping them around his head like a bath towel or a turban or some bizarre head gear (bizarre because it was comprised of very ordinary or everyday clothing.) He took off his shoes, he added his socks to the head contraption, and he even added the shoes after taking off his underwear (and wrapping it around his head). His body was naked, but he was also wearing a seriously cumbersome head-dress.
Then he began scrubbing his body, like a person showering but with nails. The scrubbing or cleaning accelerated into scratching. He scratched harder and harder and drew what looked like welts as well as bleeding. When he had scratched to satisfaction or his limit, he used a tissue to stop the bleeding and to wash off his body, to soften or restore it. Then he placed the tissue on his left little finger and struck two poses. Then he handed the tissue to the nearest audience member, who happened to be Sini Haapalinna. The performance and the evening were now complete and concluded.
This evening of course being Halloween, there was occasional confusion about who was a performer and who wasn’t during the changeovers or intermissions. This was fun—it was amusing. But no trick and treating pour moi. I had to get home and get to work, and then get to sleep.