Blips from the 7a*11d Radar Screen (a brief and selective history)

By Paul Couillard

(originally published in the 2008 7a*11d Catalogue)

As the collective marks its very special and somewhat surprising “7 / 11” anniversary, it is useful to consider how 7a*11d came to be, and what we have been able to contribute to performance art activity in Toronto.

In the early 1990s, performance art in Toronto was in the doldrums. Live art had played a crucial and vibrant role in setting the agenda of art practice and debate both locally and around the world throughout the 1970s and ’80s – and had been critical in establishing the reputations of more than one artist and artist-run centre in the process – but by the early 1990s, many critics and even artists were identifying performance art as a fad whose time had passed. Key contributors had left Toronto as the cost of living soared in the late ’80s; others were casualties of the mounting death toll of the AIDS crisis. Public funding cuts had forced many visual art institutions to retreat into their traditional core disciplines, abandoning performance art events almost completely. Artists famous for their mega-spectacles and alternative events found that they could no longer fund projects, and so reverted to making objects that might at least provide them with something they could sell. Artists interested in exploring identity politics and activist agendas increasingly concentrated their focus on video, which was becoming steadily cheaper and easier to produce thanks to constant advancements in technology. Meanwhile, theatre artists had embraced many of the experimental techniques pioneered in alternative venues, incorporating them into a more mainstream vocabulary.

If you listened to the smart money, performance art was over.

And then, something unexpected happened. Against all odds, performance art blips began to reappear on Toronto’s art radar screen. Performance artists from other places moved to Toronto. Familiar artists who had left returned. Students from the Ontario College of Art & Design, who had acquired a taste for performance art from teacher Johanna Householder, were inspired to keep making performances and producing events after they left school. Even as A Space, formerly a performance art stalwart, disbanded its Performance Art Committee, a number of modest collective projects and informal contributors – like Shake Well, FADO, Spank Performance Art, Symptom Hall, the Cult of !Po-Po!, and Liminal Laboratories – began producing events that contributed to a surprising and eclectic burst of activity in 1996.

Still, it took something more to turn this seething mass into a critical one. Jenny Keith, the director of Symptom Hall (a self-funded artist venture running out of a former Lithuanian community centre on Claremont Street), had noticed that something was afoot. In January of 1997, she called a meeting of local performance art organizers and artists – many of whom had never met each other. Two dozen bodies assembled with no firm agenda beyond a desire to discuss the proliferation of performance art activity and to find ways to actively encourage its development. By the end of that first meeting, however, the idea of organizing a performance art festival was on the table, and within a month, 13 of the initial participants had galvanized into the first 7a*11d steering committee.

Reflecting on the first festival for Fuse magazine, I wrote:

“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. Forming a working group 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, exact parameters would have inevitably polarized the group and led to dissension and dogma. Working together was a learning process for all of us, and required that we keep our visions open and expansive to accommodate other, sometimes contradictory viewpoints.” (Fuse 21:2, 46)

The first 7a*11d was a conglomeration of both individual artists and artist collectives. At the time, several collectives were interested in preserving their identities and using the festival as a vehicle for their own curatorial visions. As a result, the early festivals featured a number of independently curated events at different locations, with Symptom Hall serving as a central home base for the first festival. Independent groups like FADO (which presented Touched, the second in their series of Five Holes events,) .in/attendant. (run by Shannon Cochrane out of the Queen Street apartment that later became Zsa Zsa Gallery) and the Jawa Collective (Peter Flemming, Jubal Brown et al. who presented a new media exhibition called: JAWA:bot:Machines that Perform in a building on John St.) programmed alongside ad hoc curatorial affinity groups formed from the steering committee. For example, Louise Liliefeldt and Johanna Householder were part of Prognosis and programmed the Teratoid Cabaret, which featured among others Rebecca Belmore, Andrew J. Paterson, and Hal Niedzviecki, while Sediment, organized by Jenny Keith, Terril-Lee W. Calder, and Derek Mohamed, filled Trinity Bellwoods Park.

The first festival was held in the summer of 1997, barely six months after the steering committee was formed. The funding was more than shaky, cobbled together primarily through massive donations of volunteer labour and small business donations. When the artists arrived for the festival, project grant results had not yet been released; in a spirit of goodwill, artists agreed to participate for nominal fees, camping in organizers’ living rooms and offering to accept whatever compensation might later trickle in from uncertain grant requests. In the end, the Toronto Arts Council and Ontario Arts Council gave their support, but the Canada Council did not. Despite a total cash budget of less than $25,000, however, the festival was an unqualified success, with five venues and 57 artists (23 Toronto-based, 22 other Canadian, 12 foreign) over five days.

The festival ran from August 7 to 11, one source of our mysterious name. With the complicated system of venues and curatorial programs, we speculated that trying to read the program would be like doing a crossword puzzle – 7 across, 11 down. As for the silent asterisk, chalk it up to the ineffable quality of the live event itself, something you have to experience directly to recognize…

The format of multiple, independent curatorial series carried over to the second festival, which was held in two parts: beginning in August, and continuing during the dates the festival has since claimed on Toronto’s festival calendar – the end of October into early November. By this time, Symptom Hall had closed (and was being turned into townhouses), so events were scattered throughout various downtown locations. The collective for this second festival was substantially reduced, to a hard core of eight (a number that has remained relatively stable, although individual collective members often change), and only the Cult of !Po-Po! identified itself as an individual collective within the greater whole. At the same time, other Toronto organizations, significantly Pleasure Dome, began to see the festival as a potential venue for their own independent programming, marking the beginning of satellite activities hosted by independent organizations under the festival umbrella.

FADO, one of the original 7a*11d member collectives, had proposed a curatorial series for the 1998 festival based on the idea of durational performances, but the proposed scale was deemed to be too large to be accommodated within the framework of the festival itself. FADO was encouraged to develop the idea as an independent project. The resulting series, TIME TIME TIME (1999), curated by me, became the springboard for the evolution of the FADO collective into an independent artist-run centre with year-round programming, now incorporated as Fado Performance Inc. and recently rebranded by its current Artistic and Administrative Director, Shannon Cochrane, as FADO Performance Art Centre.

After the second festival, a very tired 7a*11d collective decided to shift to a biennial format, partly with the idea that other projects could take place in the non-festival year. These have included an artist residency, co-sponsored with FADO, featuring USA artist Rachel Rosenthal, as well as Recipro-City/ReciproCité (2001-02), an exchange project featuring artists from Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal, co-sponsored by Studio 303. (The Vancouver portion was never completed.)

For festival number three in 2000, a concerted effort to bring the programming into a more unified whole began to develop. Although independent curatorial entities such as IBRI (the International Bureau of Recordist Investigation) and FADO (by then receiving its own operating funds) produced discrete series within the festival context, for the average festival-goer, programming distinctions began to blur as most events took place at one central location (Art System, the OCAD student union gallery, which eventually morphed into the current XPACE), and independent series were downplayed in favour of a unified festival experience. Collective members also made the decision to focus exclusively on organizing the event, and not to present their own performances within the festival context.

By 2002, the collective began to select works and artists as a group, eliminating most series titles and independent curatorial streams. This is not to suggest that the collective members had developed a unified aesthetic. The festival continues to be an opportunity to juxtapose works with widely varying styles, structures, and content. A guiding principle of the collective has generally been that if a single member strongly supports an individual work or artist, it will be included – even if the group as a whole is not enthusiastic. This has ensured six festivals of dynamic, eclectic and passionate programming. The roster of artists has also become increasingly international as more collective members travel to other countries and discover artists who might not otherwise be known in Canada. Each festival has brought new innovations, from video programs of performance documentation (the d2d = direct to documentation series) to exhibitions of performance art residue, from artist and curatorial talks and panels to workshops and residencies.

After 11 years of operation, 7a*11d has become English Canada’s oldest ongoing performance art festival, recognized as a key North American anchor for an international network of performance art festivals and initiatives spread throughout Europe, Asia, and the Americas. True to the principles that have historically separated live art from its institutionalized counterparts – privileging meeting, presence, and action over commodity and economy – 7a*11d continues to operate on a project basis as an unincorporated collective. Like those earlier blips on the radar screen, 7a*11d continues to defy the smart money by championing a unique, artist-driven, artist-defined organizational model. Where other festivals have since developed across Canada as incorporated entities or as annual events programmed by existing artist-run centres, the 7a*11d collective has found long-term stability and sustainability as an organic, rhizomatic structure that dissolves and reforms with each new project. 7a*11d plays an essential role in defining and asserting the ongoing presence of performance art in Toronto: supporting local artists, co-producing events with various local and regional organizations, and bringing in artists from around the world in a context of an international conversation about performance art.

Every festival brings revelation and reinvention, not to mention unanticipated serendipities like this 7 / 11 anniversary year. We are grateful to the collective members, supporters, participants, artists, and audiences who have made the festival such an ongoing success – and we look forward…

This year the 7a*11d Collective is Gale Allen, founder Shannon Cochrane, founder Paul Couillard, founder Johanna Householder, founder Louise Liliefeldt, and Festival Intern Adam Herst, supported by Tanya Mars in absentia.

—Paul COUILLARD (collective member)

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