5. Para-sites of Performance Art: Some Brief Thoughts on the Role of Artist-Curator

In terms of professions, I define myself first as a performance artist, but that label is closely followed by at least two others: performance curator and, more recently performance theorist. This confluence of roles is no accident; it reflects how I discovered that there was such a thing as performance art in the first place. Unlike a current generation of artists who have more than likely gone to art school to learn their craft, my training took place in Canada’s artist-run centre network. It was not until I was an artist with a 20-year practice that I went to university to pursue first an MFA and now a PhD. My professional art education began when I was living in Ottawa in the 1980s. I was encouraged by a housemate to visit a local artist-run centre named SAW Gallery, where she was working as an intern—and that is where I was exposed to and came to appreciate video, installation and performance art practices. My first steady job after leaving home had been working for minimum wage as a security guard at various federal museums, including the National Gallery of Canada, but from that vantage point, fine art seemed far away from both my existing skill set and my abiding interests in language and community. I couldn’t draw, my aptitude for tools and machines was generally abysmal (only “good citizenship” saved me from failing industrial arts in junior high school), and even I couldn’t love the crude, misshapen objects that I had produced in the art classes of my youth.

Realizing that there might be a place for me as an artist took time. The first performance art event that I ever attended—which included short works by various performers, though the only one I remember clearly from that evening program featured a local artist named Aarmèse unrolling and vacuuming a rug in the murkily-lit gallery—left me baffled. And yet, there it is: almost 40 years later, I am still able to recall that simple action, however unimpressed I thought I was at the time. Once I began to imagine the possibility of becoming an artist, however (after being enthralled by a performance of Rachel Rosenthal’s Gaia, Mon Amour at SAW in 1984), I rapidly embarked on an apprenticeship of learning by doing. This involved not only making and presenting works, but also working at artist-run centres (first through short contract jobs at SAW, then later in full-time positions at Galerie 101 Gallery), as well as reviewing cultural events and interviewing artists for local alternative print and radio media. Without fully knowing what performance art was or could be, and certainly with no clue of the art lineages that have since been laid out so assiduously by performance scholars, I learned about performance art by taking on a producing role, programming virtually any project calling itself “performance art” that crossed my desk. It was an uneven, eccentric education that from the start enfolded the challenges of creating and presenting my own projects with organizing, talking about, and writing about others’ work and practices.

Artist-run centres were my training ground, but they also proved to be my home. I have continually been deeply invested in the self-directed and community-building initiatives of artist-driven culture rather than in the art markets and institutionalized public and private galleries and major events that dominate the art ecosystem. (To be fair, they haven’t shown any more interest in me than I have in them!) Eventually, but only after many years of organizing projects in very independent and localized contexts, I also discovered and found my way into an international performance art network, consisting primarily of festivals run by small groups of artists, frequently the vision of a single, energetic individual. Most of these events are labours of love, run with very little in the way of financial resources, but usually with deep ties to local communities. The work that gets shown at these events is often breathtakingly engaging and wildly inventive, but it is generally more “programmed” than “curated.”[1] In my experience, three key factors tend to dictate who and what gets shown: the scant resources of the organizers; an underlying commitment to building a network that is largely held together by reciprocal friendships; and, exhibition conditions that tend to favour short works with minimal set-ups and conventional audience relationships.

In Canada, the ongoing government support provided to artist-run culture has allowed or encouraged a performance art infrastructure to develop a bit differently than in most parts of the world. In the 1990s, working with a small group of peers, I was able to establish FADO as a permanent centre for performance art with year-round programming and stable operating funding. Securing ongoing operational funding from public arts councils allowed FADO to initiate and support a wide range of artist projects, but also demanded the articulation of a clear and rationalized vision of how the organization aimed to serve and develop the sector. One of the key arguments used to leverage ongoing public funding at a time when government support for the arts was actually static or shrinking was a practitioner-based curatorial vision for presenting specific works and artists. I have often asserted, only half-jokingly, that I developed FADO as a way to support my curatorial habit. Organizing works by other artists has proven to be a profoundly useful and instructive way to research formal, technical, and thematic questions that interest me as an artist.

In the early years of FADO, before it was receiving operational support, I would regularly include my own works in the thematic events that I was organizing. Bringing works by several artists together with my own was a way to both expand my thinking about performance art as a practice and develop an informed audience for particular styles, approaches, and genres that reflected and influenced what I was making. Once FADO began receiving operational support, however, at least one of the arts councils determined that the organization could only receive such support if it did not promote or include any of my own performances, since I was running the organization. This stricture reflects performance art’s placement within an institutional, visual arts-based exhibition model, where the roles for a curator as a collaborative and creatively generative partner are carefully prescribed and policed. In performing arts disciplines such as theatre, which traditionally follow a model understood in terms of production as much as exhibition, it is very common for artistic directors to mount their own works as well as productions by independent individuals and companies. In a curatorial context, however, my approach was perceived as posing a conflict of interest.

When I first began to see myself as an artist, I followed the conventional wisdom that treats the roles of artist and curator as distinct. As my work developed, however, I came to describe what I do as a performance artist as the art of “creating situations.” As it turns out, this was equally true of how I worked as FADO’s Performance Art Curator. There, too, I was “creating situations.”[2] The notion of a practice—be it “artistic” or “curatorial”—based on the creation of situations points to a growing attention to the relationships engendered among art, artists and audiences as essential aspects of the work itself, foregrounded in theories such as relational aesthetics, as well as in artistic genres such as infiltration practices and manoeuvres.[3] It also suggests a territory where the roles of artist and curator may begin to blur. In my role as a “curator,” I make links among art works, sites, and audiences—temporally, spatially, and imaginatively—in ways that I hope don’t interfere with the integrity of the any individual artist’s vision, but that nevertheless function as artistic gestures in their own right. This mirrors the way practices of collage, assemblage, appropriation and quotation have become important mainstays of contemporary art practice. Inviting other artists to tackle specific aspects of a larger issue and bringing their contributions together in a carefully shaped context can be loosely compared to models of industrial manufacture, where an artist may contract out the technical or physical execution of a work. In such large-scale practices, the impetus and the vision that define the finished product as a work of art rest with the artist, not with the contracted manufacturer, however fine their craft. Without claiming any authorship of individual works, the contexts I shape as a curator also inscribe, from my perspective, an art practice in their own right. In addition, many of the projects I develop as a curator tend to be site-specific, and my role as a producer often entails attention to details that overlap with the conceptual, gestural, and installational impulses that inform many current artistic practices.

Here I am sketching out a terrain for a particular type of artist-based curatorial practice. Claiming artist-curator as a hybrid title seems a natural extension of the rhetoric of artist-directed activity upon which the Canadian artist-run centre network was formed. Just as artists have developed their own galleries to display work, artist curation offers possibilities for artists to take control of the way works are commissioned, assembled, and contextualized.[4] In positing curating as an “artistic” practice, one can also draw on parallels in other disciplines, particularly in the performing arts, where some organizational roles are recognized as specific artistic talents.[5] At the same time, various pressures—including the authorial interests of exhibiting artists who may be fundamentally opposed to the notion of curator-as-artist; after all, who wants their work subsumed within someone else’s “practice”?—problematize any such consideration.[6] While the artist-curator has emerged as a recognizable though not-yet-fixed figure in the art world, most curators still balk at the notion of calling or even thinking about what they do as an art form. Curatorial methodologies and practices tend to be more closely understood in relation to disciplines such as art history, archival studies, and anthropology than alongside generative, studio-based practices.

Another way of understanding an artistic turn to curation, then, might be to draw on a concept taken from anthropology. George E. Marcus has championed the idea of the para-site, a model of cultural activity that sets up a zone of critique or alternativity to dominant institutional systems and structures. Marcus invokes the para-site as a place that is somewhat integrated into the mechanisms of cultural activity and production, but at the same time is able to engage in a larger critique of institutional and systemic structures—a domain within the larger system, in other words, where occupants are able to assert or parlay a certain degree of individual or collective agency. For Marcus,

The object of achieving para-sites within or metaphorically alongside a system is systemic understanding in very human terms and according to one’s desires and plans in relation to it. Thus, to function in para-sites is to double one’s understanding of one’s formal, publicly defined practices for the purposes of reflection, and not necessarily for reflection about oneself but about the system itself. It is precisely this more ethnographic reflection that allows subjects to pursue their ends within or alongside systems and institutional routines (8-9).

While many of the para-sites Marcus envisions encompass alternative social, political and activist projects, the artist-run centre network can certainly be posited as such a para-site within the institutionalized art world; indeed, Marcus’s Para-Sites: A Casebook against Cynical Reason includes an article by Ron Burnett that highlights the history of the Vancouver artist-run centre Western Front as one of its case studies. Marcus’s main concern as an anthropologist is to target such para-sites as models of resistance that can both inform ethnographic approaches to understanding and describing a culture in all its strengths and shortcomings, and offer up enfranchised ethnographic subjects for study:

The para-site is […] a space of excess or surplus in a subject’s actions but is never fully controllable by him or her. The achievement is to be able to make and operate in such spaces at all. This is cultural production as close to the skin of events and engines of change as possible. It is the kind of cultural work that critical scholars or ethnographers, on the lookout for “found” critical sensibilities, must ally with, and the sort of work that might give the former renewed interest in those (including themselves) who might be cast (and cast off) as mildly depressed cynics for the sake of the more virtuous and dramatic study of others in the throes of always complicated and qualified but virtuous resistance. To see counterparts as subjects, too—those who offer novel, overlapping, and differently situated thought about contemporary change close to the centers of institutional power—requires seeing them as and in para-sites in relation to what they do as moderately empowered persons (9).

More recently, Natasha Myers has expanded Marcus’s model of the para-site as a setting of alternative cultural production and critique to propose an alternative academic methodology of para-site practices. Myers is less interested in para-sites as found locations of institutional reflection than she is in thinking through how anthropologists as practitioners can instigate their own para-sites in order to “detune” or reattune their sensibilities and sensitivities as scholars. In the context of research-creation, she proposes para-sites as methods of experimentation where anthropologists can, for example, engage in their own artistic and creation practices as a more expansive way of approaching their chosen subjects. For her, the para-site is somewhat akin to a laboratory set-up, configured by the inquirer as a site for experimentation. She defines them as

experimental sites that take shape “alongside” fieldwork, feeding off of and feeding into ethnographic research and writing. “Para-sites” stage inquiry in ways that enable ethnographers to reorient their ethnographic attention, transform their analytic and interpretive schemas, and hone their sensory and affective dexterities for feeling their way through the indeterminacies and imperceptibilities of fieldwork. Para-sites include those experiments and collaborations that engage extra-textual media, including artworks, installations, films, performances, and demonstrations. They are sites in which ethnographers can improvise, alter, and reorient their theories and methods through collaboration and experimental practices (101-102).

Myers claims artistic practice as a useful research method for anthropology. For her, it is not so important that such creative efforts be recognized and validated as artistic ventures; rather, hands-on research-creation methods offer ways for anthropologists to reorient their thinking and privilege other ways of knowing a subject. As she puts it,

detuning our all-too-well-tuned sensoria can render worlds otherwise. It is necessary to detune the colonial sensorium and its mechanistic common sense to invent modes of attention that can apprehend those differences and specificities of bodies and relations that would otherwise be hard to grasp (98-99).

Myers’s configuration of para-site practices as a research methodology leads me to an image of my curatorial practice as a para-site of my performance art practice. Curating offers opportunities to detune some of my sedimented assumptions about performance art as a practitioner, to pay attention to the bodies and relations that contribute to performance art practices differently, and to improvise, alter and reorient my theories and methods.

Adapting Marcus’s para-site model and Myers’s notion of para-site practices to performance art practices offers some potentially productive framings for both the role of the artist-curator and the concept of the digital toolkit. Broadly speaking, all performance art documents can be seen as para-sites of the live event. Following Marcus, however, the KinesTHESES digital toolkit can be understood as a para-site that serves to critique existing systems. It acts as an incursion into both curatorial and archival structures by offering an alternative frame for understanding what these assembled documents are—as recordings, as field notes, as a collection of remains, as a curatorial essay—and how they might be accessed—as engines for reanimation rather than as historical remains or authoritative reflections. Furthermore, following Myers, the digital toolkit can also be understood as a para-site practice that offers a vehicle, available to both the participating artists and the audiences who take up these documents as tools, for de-tuning sensoria and rendering worlds otherwise.

What I have tried to lay bare here is a rationale for the documents assembled here, and a suggestion for how they might best be apprehended. As a project, KinesTHESES rests on the premise that our most basic foundations for understanding and negotiating the world are found in our tactile-kinesthetic senses. The digital toolkit follows from that same premise, offering documents not just for mental contemplation, but for bodily engagement. It is of course up to individual users how they choose to mobilize the toolkit, working with, through, or against what they find here. Archives and toolkits both offer possibilities for active use that surpass the imaginations and intentions of those who assemble them.

NOTES

[1] For a consideration of the differences between programming and curating practices in relation to performance art, see my 2009 article, “Selecting Performance Art: Curating vs. Programming” in Canadian Theatre Review 137.

[2] I was particularly interested to hear independent British curator Matthew Higgs describe his curatorial practice using exactly the same words—”I create situations”—at InFest, an international conference on artist-run culture held in Vancouver in February 2004. He was speaking as part of a panel entitled “Metamorphosis: The Artist as Curator.”

[3] A manoeuvre is a situation, initiated by an artist and unfolding in time and space, constructed as a collective process that precludes the artist from controlling its ultimate outcome. The concept of the manouevre as a particular form of artistic gesture was pioneered in Québec, and has been extensively theorized in particular by Alain-Martin Richard. For more on the manoeuvre as an artistic gesture, see Alain-Martin Richard: Performances, manœuvres et autres hypothèses de disparition / Performances, Manoeuvres and Other Hypotheses for Disappearing, a bilingual publication I edited with Alexandra Liva as part of FADO’s Performance Art Legends book series.

[4]Not all artist-run centres are focused on exhibiting work. Many are production centres, or offer a mixed model that includes both production and exhibition concerns. The gallery-based approach that often makes artist-run centres indistinguishable from public or private galleries for viewing audiences is partly a function of historical funding requirements based on rigid disciplinary models. The late Dennis Tourbin, who mentored me at Galerie 101 Gallery, told me that when the Saint Catharines-based Niagara Artists Centre—an artist-run organization formed in 1969—was first applying for operating support from the Canada Council for the Arts in the 1970s, they proposed a structure that would not require them to operate a permanent gallery space. The organizers had a vision of a production and display platform without a space that might only occasionally include traditional exhibitions, moving fluidly, for example, between billboard projects, community radio and television projects, public art projects, publication projects, and so forth. At the time, they were informed that maintaining a traditional exhibition space was a prerequisite in order for them to qualify for ongoing operating support; this imperative was reflected in the title of the program, administered through the CCA’s Visual Arts section, which offered support to “Parallel Galleries.”

[5] This suggests a schema that makes room for an array of different talents that each, in their own way, signal a creative or artistic vision: some are interpretive (e.g., acting, dancing, playing music); some are generative (e.g., writing, painting, sculpting, composing); and some are organizational (e.g., directing, conducting).

[6] In his book Policy Matters: Administrations of Art and Culture, Clive Robertson suggests that many artist-run centres have been happy to consciously avoid a “curatorial” model that privileges existing heirarchies within the art world:

artist-run centres, while now institutions in their own right, can be and have been a way of stabilizing artists’ collectives. Such organizations were (and I assume are) quite happy to program rather than curate, to co-ordinate rather than to edit. Curating and editing imply other purposes. “Artist run” is not simply a personnel question. It can be an ethical refusal by artists not to anthropologize other artists or to use artists’ productions merely as ingredients for other recipes and theses; it can be a stance against the exploitation of expressions of difference that strip away the politics (pp 13-14).


WORKS CITED

Couillard, Paul. “Selecting Performance Art: Curating vs. Programming.” CTR 137, Winter 2009, 83-85.
Couillard, Paul & Liva, Alexandra, editors. Alain-Martin Richard: Performances, manœuvres et autres hypothèses de disparition / Performances, Manoeuvres and Other Hypotheses for Disappearing, Fado Performance Inc., Les Causes Perdues In© & SAGAMIE édition d’art, 2014.
Marcus, George E. “Introduction.” Para-Sites: A Casebook against Cynical Reason, edited by George E. Marcus, University of Chicago Press, 2000. 1-14.
Myers, Natasha. “Anthropologist as Transducer in a Field of Affects.” Knowings and Knots: Methodologies and Ecologies in Research Creation, edited by Natalie Loveless, University of Alberta Press, 2019. 97-125.
Robertson, Clive. Policy Matters: Administrations of Art and Culture. YYZ Books, 2006.

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