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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.