Reflections on Day Three and Four

By Christine Korte

The language of materials was the central talking point of yesterday’s (Friday’s) Performance Art Daily.  Each artist – Guadalupe Neves, Paul Hurley and Maria Hupfield – was asked by moderator Wanda Nanibush to elaborate on their relationship to the materials or objects used in their performances. The most interesting question of the discussion was one that two individuals raised: was it important for the artist to consider the genealogy of these materials – their histories? One audience member admitted to finding himself recognizing the actions or materials from other performances he’d seen in the past. Hence, the question of citations, quotations and clichés (as contingencies that can both invigorate and undermine the potential of performance to impact the audience) came to the fore. How does each artist deal with the history of the material? Is part of the labour of the performance artist to acknowledge supporting or preceding concepts and histories? And is there automatically difference in the repetition – as in, does each body automatically re-inscribe a gesture or material with difference? Performance art, after all, does not exist in a vacuum – cultural, historical, social, ideological or otherwise. Hence, the relationship to materials is always already political. Furthermore can we, as audience members, identify the “layers” that have gone into working with, or through, the materials – and does this distinguish the quality of the work?

The artists elaborated about care of materials, sensation over action, or a simple love of an object that determined their choice to incorporate it. Why must it be more? Can performance not suspend the labour of deconstruction? And can this breed a more “pure” engagement with the object world – one that is purely contingent on the sensations wrought in a fleeting moment? This discussion pointed to the immense importance of having opportunities to discuss this terrain with peers. It inspired me personally to reconsider how materials and objects are supported by layers of preceding labour, meanings and histories.

And now to the performances. Anna Kalwajtys’ performance early on Friday afternoon, Free The Mind, can only be described as an embodied manifesto. When I came into the room, the performer was like a futuristic whirling-dervish, spiralling around a keyboard and screeching into not one but two megaphones. Something about artificial life, artificial world, and then there was the red paint she dumped on her head. In her imperative to supersede the artificiality and constructedness of life, she was conjuring a daemonic energy that eventually led her out of the gallery space, taking her manifesto perilously into the street. Barefoot, dressed in army fatigues and a tank top, and running at an absurd pace whilst screaming into the megaphones, Kalwajtys was impossible to keep up with. I lost sight of her and so imagined the flights she was taking down the middle of West Toronto streets. All I could experience was the traces she left behind: the bamboozled shop owners, the disrupted traffic, and passers-by asking me if the subway had stopped running – what was this woman “warning us about”?

In today’s (Saturday’s) Performance Art Daily, moderated by Istvan Kantor, one audience member asked how performance art in the neoliberal context could still impel real interventions (when contestations have been thoroughly absorbed by “the system”). This reminded me of responses from critical theory discourse that elaborate the ways in which the limits of the system can be pointed to. I am thinking here of Jacques Rancière’s notion of dissensual politics or Laclau & Mouffe’s notion of antagonism – theories that point to moments when the logic of the system breaks down. Kalwajtys’ performance, in this way, reminded me of the fictional character Lisbeth Salander – that tiny, fearsome vigilante from Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo. That novel builds on a long history of the Swedish detective novel genre that points out the limits of the purportedly utopian Swedish socialist project starting from the 1960s onwards. Lisbeth, of course, is a hacker who lives out her ethos by intervening in the immaterial world of cyberspace. Kalwajtys, in turn, takes her ethos from the gallery space out into the streets, risking her personal safety. From artifice into the real, Kalwajtys’ intervention was dangerous. I had to imagine how she would survive her disruption/intervention unscathed. There was no ending to Kalwajtys’ performance, only a conceptual map I had created in my mind, replete with a running, screeching Kalwajtys’ superimposed on it – wreaking havoc and reminding us of new paths for disruption.

Sylvie Cotton, Interdependance PHOTO Henry Chan
Sylvie Cotton and participants, Interdependance 7a*11d 2012 PHOTO Henry Chan

The second performance of Friday afternoon was Sylvie Cotton’s Interdependence. Cotton had set up a large group of participant-volunteers in a circle that dominated the gallery space. Here, the performers outnumbered audience members. As can often be the case, the circle of participants had quickly established its own clear and palpable dynamic. Introductions went around the circle and then a gift-exchange of personal items (of clothing or objects). An inventory of the exchanged items was eventually laid in the center of the group like an installation. The process began slowly and was careful and considered. Eye contact, gentleness, physical and unspoken communication were the primary tools.

The small audience was witness to a kind of implicit trust that had been established in the circle of participants. As such, risks were taken, beautiful and surprising moments occurred – painful and uncomfortable ones too. The circle accommodated a radical degree of authenticity, creating a space for possiblities and unknowns. How much space will one person decide to take up, for example,  with their bodies or their egos? What needs will individuals assert and what unrealized impulses will co-exist along with them? The project attempted at self-reflexivity – an elaborate meta-framework of layers that we in the gallery were witnessing in the conditions Cotton created for this experiment. The writing of both Cotton, as well as the participants, on the gallery wall were proposals: they were ideas to work with or reflected feelings that had surfaced in the space (i.e. nothing 2 loose; fear). These conceptual “maps” are a trademark of Cotton’s oeuvre – concepts, feelings and terms that propose possibilities and enable new kinds of encounters to happen.

But in such fleeting collectivities we witness actions and behaviours that are often outside the comfort level for a new group. In them, we do things we wouldn’t normally do (and of course this is precisely the point). There is a consensus on the part of participants – a willingness to serve such a configuration in the spirit of the project. But what does this translate into both during and after the performance? Does the participant feel more impelled than she normally would to be vulnerable or impulsive during the performance? Has the infrastructure been established to accommodate what might surface during the performance, post the performance? Especially since the work can be so personal and unexpected, and many intsense emotions seemed to emerge in this case. The great thing about Cotton’s piece is that it raised these concerns, leaving me to reflect upon both the emancipatory possibilities, as well as the potential limits of, relational practices.

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