1997 7a*11d Performance Art Festival review

By Paul Couillard

7a*11d International Festival of Performance Art
August 7 – 11, 1997

In 1997, after the first 7a*11d International Festival of Performance Art, I wrote an article for FUSE magazine about the the festival. Part of it was published as a general report on the festival itself with statistical information about the various venues, but the piece as a whole was rejected because it was seen as a conflict for an organizer to provide a critical commentary/review of work within the festival, despite what was essentially a siloed programming structure at the time. I had long forgotten about the piece until our recent website update, which required me to comb through my electronic archives in search of information on early festival years. (For the early festivals, we did not have either a website or catalogue; these years have been reconstituted out of the electronic embers of correspondence, press material and grant applications from those early events.) I am posting it here as a firsthand account that may retain some value for the historical record Other than fixing a few typos, I have not edited the original document. [pc]

In the 1970s and early 1980s, performance art was a mainstay of artistic activity in Toronto. The most striking aspect of A Space’s 25th Anniversary celebrations in the fall of 1996, for example, was the enormous emphasis placed on time-based and particularly performance art activity in defining the history and timeline of A Space’s cultural contribution. From the mid-1980s to the mid 1990s, however, Toronto’s performance art scene faded from view. Performance art, it seemed, had died, an early victim of tightening government purse strings, increasing bureaucratization within the artist-run network, and a general lack of audience interest. Local artists died, left town, or moved on to other things, while emerging artists channelled their energies into other media.

From this perspective, the sudden flurry of performance art events beginning in the summer of 1996 was a surprising development. After a decade of dormancy, performance art seemed to be everywhere, cropping up in independent, self-produced events,[1] ambitious presentations by newly formed performance art organizations,[2] and to a lesser extent within more established art institutions.[3] Inspired by the volume, range and depth of work being produced, Jenny Keith, a stalwart of both Shake Well Performance Art and Symptom Hall, called a meeting in early January of 1997 to bring some of these pockets of activity together.

Many of the artists at this initial meeting had never met, though they had begun to see each other’s work. The goal of the meeting was to break down some of the isolation, and perhaps figure out ways to work together to encourage the recent momentum. The idea of a larger festival cropped up very early in the discussions, and within a month, the group had transformed itself into the steering committee of what would become the 7a*11d International Festival of Performance Art.

The steering committee was an unlikely alliance of artists with differing aesthetics and varied experience ranging from long-time veterans of the artist-run centre network to OCAD students. Working together required a commitment to the notion of grassroots community-building. Perhaps ironically, holding the group together also required a complicit vagueness of both roles and definitions. We avoided imposing a rigid structure on the group; there was no leader, no president, no executive. By the same token, we did not come up with even a working definition of performance art as a form. Although we discussed what kinds of things we wanted to do and see, coming up with exact parameters would have inevitably polarized the group and led to dissension and dogma. Working together would be a learning process for all of us, and would require that we keep our visions open and expansive to accommodate other, sometimes-contradictory viewpoints.

An unwillingness to impose rigid definitions did not require abandoning aesthetic or critical standards. We developed the idea of a series of autonomously curated events, each with their own parameters, but benefiting from the blanket umbrella of the festival. This allowed us to present a wide range of work in a variety of venues, including Symptom Hall, the .in/attendant. storefront gallery at 962 Queen St. W., Trinity Bellwoods Park, and a semi-industrial space rented by JAWA above Young Thailand restaurant on John St, just off of Queen W.

With over 40 separate works involving at least 60 artists presented over a five-day period, it would be impossible to fairly describe all that happened. Individual works were rich and wise, and had much to offer within their individual cultural and aesthetic frames. What I am particularly interested in noting, however, is how the works often played off each other in unexpected ways — offering viewpoints or images that we are generally encouraged to understand as being opposing, but in fact sit together within a larger spectrum.

Even within the overall structure of the festival, one series, :JAWA:bot:Machines That Perform, curated by Jubal Brown and Peter Flemming, set itself up as a contradictory venue. In a festival dedicated to performance art, which would presumably have at least one inviolable rule of requiring the presence of the performer, the curators decided to consider the role of machines as extensions of or substitutes for the human body. In their ‘bad boy’ curatorial statement, they write,

MACHINES were created to replace people, to perform our menial tasks for us so we don’t have to. Perhaps they are extensions of our bodies? our will? or our psychopathological inertia towards oblivion? … Given the notion that machines were made to carry out boring and repetitive tasks for us so we could do more important things with our valuable time, it seems very natural and appropriate that machines would replace performance artists whose tradition of being boring and repetitive has been well-documented.

More a sculptural exhibition than performance art, the show ended with an all-night “RANT” (a rave by any other name) to provide their audience with the visceral ‘live’ action that they might have otherwise felt was lacking. Their nihilistic stage smoke ‘n’ candles with slick techno music evening found its alternative mirror reflection in the friendly, slightly winsome Jin’s Banana House, which played at various festival locations as part of the Prognosis series curated by Johanna Householder, Louise Liliefeldt, Derek Mohamed and Tracy Stafford. Based in an old VW van, artist Jinhan Ko was a travelling ‘happening’, setting up miniature versions of the megamedia rock spectacle wherever he went. Projecting slides and Super8 films onto the windows of his van from inside and playing amplified mixes of sounds and pop and country music DJed live from toy record players and ancient stereo equipment, Ko provided a genial and surprisingly satisfying accommodation for the twin consumerist impulses of machine love and star status.

In the Teratoid Cabaret, also part of Prognosis, the evening began with Andrew Paterson’s self-reflexive Performance: A Performance. In this three-part piece, the performer begins in character as Professor Wordsworth, offering a long rant on the meaning of the word performance, followed by a video segment in which we see the performer offer a dazzling array of glib takes, many of them contradictory, about the meaning and nature of ‘performance’ — sporting a different outfit for each one. The clothes change, as does what is being said, but throughout the audience is party to the ironic, nudge-nudge/wink-wink attitude of the performer himself, who seems to suggest that while all of these viewpoints may hold some germ of truth, they are simply convenient masks that can be assumed or abandoned as easily as the clothes we wear. In the final segment, Paterson drives his point home by appearing, naked, to the strains of Thus Spake Zarathustra. The simplistic joke on the ubiquitous performance art tactic of nakedness, taken to absurd extremes as he sings a self-penned song of ego gratification (“I love the camera/I love the lights!”) is accompanied by a more complicated honesty. Paterson and the audience are both clearly revelling in the joy of his outrageous parody.

Several performances later, the evening ended with For Dudley, a piece by Rebecca Belmore that expressed what could not be said with words alone — a confusing and overwhelming rush of emotions at the tragic shooting of Dudley George at Ipperwash. Periods of silence were punctuated by repeating strains of a ’60s pop song (“Bang bang/He shot me down/Bang bang/I hit the ground/Bang bang/He shot me down/Bang bang/My baby shot me down”) as Belmore stripped a tree of leaves, branches and bark. Powerful, violent, and burning with white-hot focus, her presence galvanized the audience’s attention. Having stripped the tree naked of its skin, she used it as a pole on which to hang the shift she was wearing, creating a screen for a projected image of Dudley George. Then Belmore sat at a table with her teacup, her naked body both a metaphor for the nakedness of her emotion and a simple statement of the fact of our common humanity, what we all share — meat, blood, bone. In that moment, the performer seemed utterly unselfconscious, simply present.

Another telling juxtaposition, perhaps more of approaches than attitudes, was evident in the work of two established American performance artists, Frank Green and Frank Moore, presented in the opening night series Five Holes: Touched, which I curated. This series featured a series of performance installations at Symptom Hall focusing on the sense of touch.[4] Frank Green, an HIV-positive artist whose work for the past several years has focused largely around the perception and treatment of ADIS, presented Anonymous Test Site, an experiential performance in which audience members were shuffled from station to station and subjected to a series of survey questions and diagnostic tests all carefully orchestrated to mimic the cold and dehumanizing procedures of medical testing and fuel a growing paranoia about ‘unprotected’ touch/contact among people. By the end of the experience, audience members were sent away with latex gloves that they were exhorted to use whenever there was the possibility of skin-to-skin contact.

Meanwhile, Frank Moore was installed in a cave downstairs presenting his piece The Cave of the Metasensual Beast with the help of his companions and colleagues Linda Mac and Michael LaBash. While Green had designed a piece that involved long delays as part of a strategy to imitate the experience of a doctor’s waiting room, Moore’s piece included a long period of waiting as a way of bringing people more deeply into themselves and absorbing the very different energy of his space so that they would be more open to the experience he was offering. Audience members willing to undergo the long trial of sitting on blankets in the anteroom looking at LaBash’s colourful and graphically sexual paintings while listening to sound tapes of trance music and body sounds — a period of not-knowing what might await on the other side of the curtain — were eventually blindfolded, given a drink called ‘soma’ to release their inhibitions, and then taken into Frank’s inner den, where they were free to explore the possibilities of eroplay and cherotic magic.[5] Many audience members found this notion a lot more scary than Frank Green’s medical house of horrors; a few refused to remove the latex gloves they had gotten from Green and were denied access to the Cave.

In many cases, the surroundings and context of the works provided an alternative perspective to the work. This was particularly true of the pieces performed in situ at Trinity Bellwoods Park as part of the Sediment series, curated by Terril-Lee Calder-Fujii, Jenny Keith and Derek Mohamed, and the .in/attendant. series at 962 Queen W, curated by Shannon Cochrane. Audience notions of what a performance should be or where it should take place were tested by piece like Bay Woodyard’s piece, Dr. Woodyard’s Magic Herbal Elixir, in which she appeared throughout the park on a cart selling herbal remedies made at her home in King Township. With two shirtless, kilted men trundling her around, sitting barefoot in a green gingham sundress with a duck in her lap, Woodyard provided an unexpected sight for the dog walkers and day camp kids.

One of the oddest and most affecting performances, however, was follow me, presented by the performance duo me and me (Shannon Cochrane and Keith Manship). Congregating on the sidewalk outside 962 Queen St W, the audience saw the storefront window filled with neat rows of flip-flops. We waited as, one by one, the male me, dressed in shorts, a white t-shirt and white patent leather shoes, pointed to individual audience members, led them into the shop and outfitted them with flip-flops, placing each individual’s pair of shoes neatly in the window where the flip-flops had been. Escorting each audience member back outside, he would choose another ‘customer’, until everyone was outfitted. Soon, 25 pairs of shoes and socks were in the store window, and after closing and locking the door and putting a ‘back in half an hour’ sign on the door, me began to walk east on Queen. The back of his t-shirt read, in small embroidered letters, ‘follow me’. With no way to get our shoes back short of breaking into the store, we did. me led us across the street to a streetcar stop, and then, onto the next streetcar, putting a twonie in the box for each person. We travelled down Queen St until we reached John St., where me led us off the streetcar and back across the street, stopping only long enough to hand each one of us free root beer samples from a stand set up near Fleuvog’s, the shoe store. Then we were escorted into Fleuvog’s, where the female me, dressed identically to the male me, was serving customers. The male me shined the female me’s shoes, they reversed roles, and then the crowd was led back out onto the street by the female me as the male me was left serving shoe store customers. The female me began hailing cabs and bundling the audience, four to a cab, into each one, giving the driver three twonies and a card with the 962 Queen St W address. Soon we were all back at the original storefront, and the female me was left with the daunting task of matching shoes to owners. This simple performance, accomplished without spoken words on the part of the two mes, had a surreal quality that gave the ride through the neighbourhood a quality of freshness, an opportunity to view the familiar from an entirely different and unexpected vantage point.

—Paul COUILLARD (1997)

[1] Notable among these were a series of Queen Street storefront performance tableaux by Louise Liliefeldt and my own month-long performance art residency at Symptom Hall, ASKANCE: A Radical Faerie Experiment in Urban Alchemy.

[2] These include Rencontre Performance, an international performance art festival produced by FADO at CineCycle in conjunction with Le Lieu, a Quebec-based artist-run centre; Spank Performance Art Event at the Rivoli; late-night ‘Love Salons’ at Liminal Labs; and performance evenings sponsored by the all.at.onceness collective.

[3] These include a 6-hour performance by Tanya Mars at the AGO as well as the aforementioned 25th Anniversary celebrations at A Space, which featured a retrospective series of performances.

[4] This is the second in a series intended to explore each of the sense. The first part, Five Holes: I’ll be Seeing You, was presented at A Space in 1995, and focused on sight.

[5] Eroplay (erotic + play) and chero (chi + eros) are two words coined by Frank to describe a kind of physical interaction that is playful, often erotic and, he believes, essential to our health, a type of interaction that we have been trained to channel into and think of only in terms of sexuality, but which he feels can be highly beneficial and transformative in other contexts.

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