By Alison Cooley
The first edition of Performance Art Dailies– a discussion series that takes the form of a talk show– took “Border Crossings” as its theme. As he opened the talk, moderator Francisco-Fernando Granados noted that the purpose of the talks is to non-Toronto-based artists to the Toronto community. Tackling the nature of borders and travel seemed a fitting way to begin.
Participants began the conversation describing their backgrounds, nationally, culturally and artistically. Immediate contrasts in training and approach to performance emerged. For the Baghdad-born duo of Ali Al-Fatlawi and Wathiq Al-Ameri, traditional, classical training (with a focus mainly in drawing and painting) in at the University of Fine Arts in Baghdad, performance did not initially register as a legitimate artistic discipline. Al-Ameri commented that the doctrine of social realism informed their training, but that, later, working with Boris Nieslony transformed the duo’s thinking “not about how to do performance, but how to think about performance.”
Serena Lee, who studied originally at OCAD, and then in Finland, before moving to the Netherlands to pursue an MFA, and who now works in London (UK), described her discovery of performance as a convenient umbrella, under which to fit a variety of concerns, methods and materials. Roberto de la Torre, who now teaches at the Escuela Nacional de Pintura, Escultura y Grabado “La Esmeralda” in Mexico city, where he once studied, described a similar methodology for categorizing his own performance. Rather than consider himself strictly a performer, he characterized his practice as interdisciplinary, with performance acting as a point of departure.
Each of the participants touched on the notion of collaboration, noting that collaboration often opens up productive territory for playing out larger concerns in a more intimate and relational way. Al-Fatlawi and Al-Ameri noted that in one of their performances, in which they transported a carpet from Baghdad and catalogued its trek to Switzerland, the carpet itself came to act as a sort of border— but also that it provoked an inquisitive relationship between the artists and observers on the street, some of whom posed for pictures with the artists. “In Iraq, if you do something strange, it’s art. It’s simple. Old women who came to sit on the carpet said, ‘oh, okay, art!’”recalls Al-Ameri.
Thinking through their work with each other, Al-Ameri and Al-Fatlawi suggested that discussion and dissent (amongst each other) produces fruitful ground for collaboration— for familiarity and comfort with the process they develop. Al-Fatlawi noted that borders are for crossing, and that the duo strives to work though issues that pose immediate barriers or engender an element of risk. de la Torre evoked context as a defining principle for collaboration, suggesting that in his practice, context determines the methods he will use throughout his performance, including collaborators. He insisted that his work also often draws from seemingly incidental happenings within his location (which is often new to him when he first arrives to conceive of a performance): food, weather, architecture, language.
Lee troubled the notion of collaboration, revealing an underlying question of power. Describing her involvement in the performative reading series, Read-in, in which members of a research and reading group knocked on strangers’ doors and proposed to read together inside the strangers’ homes, Lee gestured to an on-going practice of negotiation which operates within collaborative performances, and suggested that broader ethical issues play out in these smaller moments.
Considering the notion of identity alongside nationalism and peripatetic nature of international performance, all of the participants spoke of an ambivalence about national identity. Al-Ameri noted that despite the duo’s base in Switzerland, Iraq is always on their mind, as part of a sense of personal history. Al-Fatlawi echoed this sentiment, suggesting that national identity has its roots in childhood memories, and that others’ perceptions of his identity are unavoidable (based on markers like language and skin colour), but also secondary to the process of making work. Al-Ameri took the sentiment further, suggesting that in a community of international performance artists, there exists the opportunity to lose one’s identity and one’s specificity.
Lee questioned the extremely anglophone nature of the performance art community, flagging it as a space of potential cultural dominance within a community striving for inclusivity. She described the role that privilege plays in the ability to lose one’s identity, suggesting that the ability to pass invisibly and resist labels seamlessly is often only available to those who already benefit from established power. Turning over the question of language within cultural identity, Lee referred to her childhood, speaking cantonese, and her failure to continue to learn the language into adulthood. She described a sense of ambiguity, discovery, and bewilderment which she now feels when immersed in the cantonese language in public space, and noted that she strives for a similar sense of bewilderment in her performance work. She returned to bewilderment as a cornerstone of her practice after being told, upon entering her Master’s program in the Netherlands, that cultural identity politics were not interesting or fashionable in that art scene.
de la Torre suggested a sense of the mutability of identity and its corresponding symbols, describing a 2002 project he performed in Japan. Bringing with him the colourful flagged bunting common to car dealerships and sidewalk sales, he arranged these symbols of aggressive consumer culture across various buildings. In hanging the bunting on Buddhist temples, the flags found a strange resonance with the boldly-coloured Buddhist peace flags, evoking a powerful contrast between the commercial and the spiritual. de la Torre described this performance as a play with national symbolism— a regocnition that innocuous signs like the bunting can also be powerful symbols of culturally specific practice, and carry different weights in different contexts.
As the panel drew to a close, I was left thinking not only about the shifting notions of identity and community that border-crossing evokes as spaces of enormous creative potential, but also about the economic realities of travel. For performance artists, whose physical presence is often key to the work itself, the expense of travel can be both a necessity and a barrier. At once, residencies, festivals, and other sponsored travel sometimes provide the economic stability, reputational legitimacy, safety, and resources for the development of new work that may be difficult to attain for artists in their home city. Success and livelihood in an international art community can become contingent upon the ability to move freely, and given the barriers to movement between countries that currently exist, those conditions of success are not to be taken lightly.