By Jenn Snider
The second edition of Performance Art Dailies began with an introduction by session moderator, Paul Couillard. He explained the theme of ‘language sound body’ by breaking it down, word for word.
The choice of word order was quite deliberate, Couillard explained— “Language is in somewhat of a black box. So this order unpacks this idea and retraces our steps from language, through sound, and back to the body.”
The participants were asked to share their backgrounds, and talk about how language, sound, and/or body influenced or moved them in their practices. First to speak, Aidana Maria Rico Chavez told us (with the Spanish to English translation assistance of Francisco-Fernando Granados) about how she writes poetry. Rising from her seat, she declared—
“I read poetry on the street. I read it on buses. I find the standards of poetry to be boring, too serious. I love poetry. I use a megaphone. Sound! Sound! Sound! Sonido ! Sonido ! Sonido !”
Next, taking a few minutes to settle down after Chavez’s rousing statement, the attendees heard about Linda Rae Dornan’s journey from language back to the body through sound. Born in Belfast, Dornan explained that the language of her childhood home was a combination of singing and poetry. When her family moved to Montreal the ways that language and sound were used became even more important. In that time of transition, which included adjusting to a new language and a Quebecois Catholicism, Dornan said that she was offered an opportunity to experience cultural dichotomy and be deeply influenced by it.
After she fell in love and got married, her partner John Asimakos developed a form of dementia which stole his language; another transition which created a new life. But this time, Dornan the artist had to decide how the process of making work about your own personal relationships would function after her husband’s illness took hold. The process she described was never precise, and she never imitated her husband’s condition, instead electing to find a way to express how she lived along side him through her work. Today, she continues to focus on performance and video installation, and to present an audio art radio show every week on CHMA 106.9 FM.
When Berenicci Hershorn was a small child, someone gave her a piece of paper and scissors, and suggested she cut out a circle—
“I cut and cut into a spiral,” she said. “I found it amazing how the paper fell open into new dimensions. I am in performance in those spaces that open up. I don’t use language, I use my body and repetitive actions to talk about my research and I repeat actions until I understand them. I try and share with others. I try and teach others. Sounds are important. Words, not so much.”
Couillard asked about why, then, in the catalogue, Hershorn used language. Suggesting that she doesn’t treat the language as a set process, she replied “words come one at a time. I treat them as singles that I weave…the word itself is an object.”
“Sounds are the language,” Dornan offered, speaking of how her husband John would imitate sounds and gesture once he could no longer speak words. He still had language, Dornan insisted, and Chavez seemed to agree. “BLOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO,” she said, and Granados translated, “Blooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo.”
Couillard’s next question was interested in what the artists think about when they make a performance. Chavez answered first and in many ways redirected the question saying that it’s different every time. Whether she’s in a different place, or is maybe a different animal or perhaps in a completely different state of being, in short, she said making performance is what she is doing when she is living. It is whatever is important to her and others close to her.
Rephrasing, Couillard instead asked about the artist’s intentionality. What do they get out of it, and where do they begin? Chavez, this time growing emotional, spoke softly and leaned on Granados who translated the following response—
“For a while I stopped (performing). For three years. I had decided performance was too much and too stupid. But (eventually) I realised I was missing something, and it was a way of living. As an artist or not, performance is about a position towards life. Within a festival it can be about living too. Where it can be as it is on the street. Where performance is a conversation. For me, performance became a virus. Everyone became impacted. My family became a part, and everyone I know. We move towards life.”
Chavez described how, for performance to be sincere you must give away who you are. You must give away your essence and talk about everything and speak to everything. Out walking every day, she said, she will perform through her route in order to find her way.
Hershorn answered the question by differentiating her process from Chavez’s, saying that she usually asks what’s in it for her when she forms her intentions—“I perform alone sometimes when I develop. (I perform) for me.” Speaking of the energy that she brings to a public space, Hershorn said that she thinks of how people watch and share the experience and asks herself ‘what do I give? What can I take away?’
Dornan articulated her perspective on intention as a middle-ground between territories outlined by Chavez and Hershorn. She believes what goes into her performances comes back to her, and that in the performative spaces she creates she can trust people will understand what she is trying to convey.
As his final question, Couillard asked why they each create performances— “What does it mean, and when do you know you’re doing it?”
“It is the intention,” Chavez said, “but also a consciousness of here and now, a concept, an image, and something that propels you towards it and mobilises you through sincerity.” Suggesting that the main thrust is experimenting with how you see the relationships, how you see what you feel and understand the action so that it can be repeated, Chavez admitted that discussion around these things is interesting, but that you learn best by living it.
Dornan offered this straight-forward answer—“If you feel it is performance, it is”—which prompted Hershorn to add that it is important to remember that it’s not just intention but intensity that matters. More than the ‘tah-da’, Hershorn suggested, it is about being with that energy, to which Chavez replied— “performance is a coming and going; a cycle that engages the body as a source of corporal empathy and reasoning which, given your formal cultural construction, will resonate differently in the arena of discourse.”
Turning to the audience for final questions brought a query into the ways that the language of sound and body play on the inner life of the performers in their practice. By way of response, Hershorn reminded us that language is a fragile thing, and that feeling your way through language as sound helps reconsider the role of language over meaning. Suggesting that she likes to remove the meaning of a word and keep the sound as a visceral element, Hershorn described how sound is very important to her work as a way to encode language with alternative meanings.
As the panel drew to a close, Dornan was asked about developing an intimate language with a partner who could no longer speak. She discussed her husband’s illness (a condition called Pick’s Disease), which eventually rendered him unable to communicate with words. After his ability to use sentences failed, words fell out of his mouth one at a time. He communicated by singing, gesturing, and humming. As the disease progressed he moved to mime.
Dornan explained that it took 14 years from diagnosis for all these changes to take place, and that in the end her husband would get his needs across to her by pointing or using his eyes. His non-verbal language had become a style of looking and touching that she was attuned to because they were together, every day.
Ending the panel on that note felt appropriate. Though some conversation continued, somehow the threads which had been identified to connect language, sound, and body had been woven by each panel participant into a personal and unique perspective. Where one was grounded in a spoken language that expressed the body, another denied words their symbolic power by transforming them into sound, while the third had found need to engage an intricate landscape of language and sound and body that required acceptance in order to transcend the known and reach toward the profound power of the performed utterance over the semiotic. Despite a 90-minute panel discussion, it felt that the topic exceeded what was possible this time. A rich conversation, there was at least no doubt that it would be continued over the next few days in the performances that were yet to come.