By Natalie Loveless
My day starts, again, by going to the Toronto Free Gallery at noon to meet with Michael Fernandes and witness his ongoing Doing Things With Strangers. For four days of the festival, loosely between the hours of noon and five, we have all been put on alert: Michael Fernandes is performing in and around the Toronto Free Gallery. Because of this, we have all watched his actions—sitting in on the afternoon Performance Art Daily talks, wandering the streets interacting with business owners, asking an artist where she is from and what kind of work she does, sitting in a cafe over coffee—with attention. All these things have both been constituted as performance and as a question: is he performing? Up until today—so for the first two and a half days of the performance—this has been maintained actively as a question, with Fernandes offering only his enigmatic look or wry smile when asked when/where are you performing?
Today starts much the same: I arrive at the gallery and notice him sitting, ready for this afternoon’s Performance Art Daily, a talk by UK artist, critic, organizer and teacher Roddy Hunter. Despite myself I, too, want to go up and ask Fernandes if he’s performing this afternoon. Though that question seems increasingly antithetical to what he’s doing, as someone tasked with writing about the piece a part of me wants to know for certain: is this it or not? Am I supposed to be writing about what’s happening now or not? Sitting down for Hunter’s talk—Notes Towards the Eternal Network in an Era of Globalization—I find myself listening through the lens of Fernandes’s Doing Things With Strangers.
Hunter starts us off with an autobiographical sampler of his performances over the last 20 years. We are treated to an onslaught of works—30 or 40—each represented by a single image and brief description. What is central here is not so much the work or its genesis but instead the geographical location of each work, detailing a chronogeography of art actions: Hungary. Kazakhstan. Japan. Berlin. Transylvania. Toronto. Serbia. Poland. Taking off just his left shoe and sock he navigates these art actions for us, bringing our attention to the interrelationship between forms of visibility (art actions) and forms of capitalism—the circulation of economic, social, cultural and symbolic capital as constitutive of contemporary networks including those of the performance art festival. Hunter’s central terms for this analysis come from sociologist Henri Lefebvre, particularly his distinction between “the global” and “the mondial.” While the global—and, by extension, globalization—refers to a totality, to an effect, the mondial and mondialisation refer to a making practice, to a making and remaking of worldwide space. The mondial—multiple, fractured, process-driven—gives rise to the possibility of parallel worlding practices. It is in this context that Hunter wants to question performance art… What world are we building when we organize, dis-organize and re-organize international performance art festivals and traffic in the circulation of international performing bodies and the dissemination of local cultural (performance) discourses? In other words, how do we as performance artists inhabit capital? Is it possible, he asks, that artists in the performance art network, traveling everywhere, themselves articulate a form of aesthetic neo-colonialism? In this context, Doing Things With Strangers becomes the fear that the stranger will become obsolete. That instead of trafficking in difference, the performance art festival circuit will work only to increase sameness. While concerned with what he dubs a kind of neo-liberal colonialism, the network—a figure of possibility for Hunter, riffing on George Brecht and Robert Filliou—is nonetheless what can be mobilized to replace the outdated concept of the historical avant-garde in thinking about these practices. While the historical avant-garde is a category dependent on a rejected mainstream, the network, like the mondial, becomes a figure for living in the same world, but living in it differently—in effect replacing a binary with a rhizomatic figure. Hunter’s talk, experienced in the context of Fernandes and Doing Things With Strangers, recalls for me the term altermondialisation, not just as an umbrella term for activists advocating alternate forms of globalization, but also as it is mobilized by feminist theorists and philosophers like Donna Haraway, Rosi Braidotti, and Beatriz Preciado. Altermondialisation takes seriously the ethics and the aesthetics of worlding practices so dear to both Hunter and Fernandes—to Fernandes through Hunter, Hunter through Fernandes, each in different idioms, different densities and textures of practice.
After the talk I mill around, following Michael Fernandes in his “other-worldalization,” at a a distance, feeling like a performance art stalker. On duty but not wanting to interfere, I watch him go up to one person—a stranger?—and strike up a conversation. I watch him bum a cigarette from another. After a while I stand next to him and, when there is a lull in the conversation, I break down and gently ask the question I have been enjoying not knowing the answer to: whether he is performing this afternoon. He gives me a look. People keep coming up to me and asking whether I am performing. They say “where have you been? I have been looking for you performing and haven’t been able to find you.” You know what I tell them? You don’t need to look for me, I am here! I am right here! This is it! I nod and step back to observe again. The performance has shifted from an enigmatic question, is this performance?, to a forceful assertion, this is performance!
I am left with the question, what kinds of other-worlding are being practiced here? What multiple, fractured, process-driven, making and remakings of worldwide space? What parallel worlding practices? A Dick Higgins quotation from Hunter’s talk is haunting me: “[C]offee cups can be more beautiful than fancy sculptures. A kiss in the morning can be more dramatic than a drama by Mr. Fancypants. The sloshing of my foot in my wet boot sounds more beautiful than fancy organ music.” Doing Things With Strangers, however, is not about a (perhaps not so) simple engagement with what the lens of performance can offer to the practice of daily life, but more emphatically about the role that performance can play in creating new lines across social difference. After a half an hour or so, I see Fernandes leave and I let him go, unencumbered by my nosiness, off into a world of strangers.