Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Monday, October 3, 2011

Day after: some musings

Performance art, like music and dance, is distinguished by its lack of an art object. Unlike painters and sculptures, once the performance art event is complete there remains no trace of it, except in the memory of those who were there to witness the performance.

Artists like Vassan Sittiket and The Turner Prize use accessories during their work. But the viewing of a piece of broken glass from Arti Grabowski’s (or Pancho Lopez’s) performance is not the same as the viewing of a painting or a sculpture. The shard of glass is a trace, a souvenir that links us back to the art event. It is not an art object in itself.

The shard of glass or the grain of rice is incomplete and static. Outside the moment and context of the performance, as our memory of the art event fades, the small power of these objects also fades. Soon they fall back into the wash of the day-to-day.

So where is the art in performance art?

As I am sure you have noticed, the photos of Hua (Phoebe) Jin the photographer for the festival and the videos of Elisha Burrows the videographer are particularly strong. Both do beautiful work. This is important because their documentation of the Live events is often all that remains after the show.

Over the course of the festival, I saw that the photos, the video and the brief descriptions of performances in the blog had a powerful transformative effect upon many of the performances, changing sometimes difficult viewing experiences into something more intense, more beautiful and easy to consume. Take for example Anna Syczewska’s piece, the hour-long arc-welding session.

For the live audience in the gallery at Vivo, the piece was long and physically grueling. After we had seen the first spike welded to her shoe, was it necessary to stay and watch the process for the next nine? The blinding light, the fumes and the music pushed most people out of the gallery to the bar and onto the street.

During that hour however, Phoebe and Burrows captured moments with striking effects and stunning beauty. For someone who was not in attendance, looking at the photos and the edited video, reading the few lines of text describing the action, their reaction might be “Wow! That looks incredible” or, “ Sorry I missed that show”.

Watching performance art is a bit like hiking up a high tree-covered mountain. For hours and hours the hiker climbs up the trail under a thick canopy of trees seeing nothing more than the rock-strewn path. Sweating under the heavy load of a pack, scrambling and stumbling, plagued by mosquitoes and deer flies, the hiker dreams of the end of the climb, imagining the crest of the mountain is just up ahead around the next switchback. When at last the hiker reaches the crest and looks out at the surrounding countryside spread out beneath, the view is magnificent. But after a few minutes rest, eating an energy bar and enjoying the splendor, it is time to climb down through the dense forest again.

The photographer, the video editor and the writer of these events create an abstraction of the performance, reducing an hour of difficult exertion into a couple moments of pleasure. In this reduced concentrated and form we can consume the experience, shooting it back like our morning de-caffe latté with soy.

Sometimes in moments of exhaustion, one asks oneself whether or not a postcard of the gorgeous view from the top of the mountain would be just as fine and aesthetically fulfilling as the hours long slog needed to climb to the viewpoint.

The problem with this shortcut is that the art in performance art takes place at a particular moment, in a particular place. The art is the phenomenon that takes place as the viewer witnesses the performance. The performer’s actions elicit a set of thoughts, emotions, and sensations in the viewer, a communication. If you are not physically there to witness and experience that communication, it’s a bit like getting a post card from Mazatlan in the middle of February.

“Having a wonderful time. Wish you were here.”

It is just not the same as two weeks lying on white sand under a blazing sun.


Vive la Live Biennale - Masashi Ogura

Click on the image to enlarge it.

La Live Biennale 2011 avait un pas mal de succès comme show-case des performances actuelles. La variété était évidente depuis l'acte archaïque ou émouvant jusqu'au high-entertainment pour le public de Vancouver. Parmi les performateurs, Nobuo Kubota a montré que l'art de performance est faisable sur une chaise seule et sans un grand décor (la tradition japonaise?). Vive la Live Biennale 2011!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Day before the end

My friend Robbie works in a Pediatric clinic, where he sees the gamut of disease and accident that come though the clinic door. There are cases of morbid congenital syndromes and homicidal neglect. It is a difficult job, seeing children die, telling the parents of their child’s illness, working with the Child Welfare Services.

Robbie accompanied me to Saturday evening’s presentation of the Live performance festival. Kurt Johannessen from Norway, Suvi from Finland and Arti Grabowski from Krakow, Poland presented work. Robbie’s a tough sell on performance art and he posed some difficult questions about the actions.

Several broad categories of work have been presented at the festival. Vassan Sitthiket and Robin Blass presented work that engaged the audience with an overt message or concept. After their pieces were over we all could talk to each other pretty confidently concerning what the piece was about. Sitthiket for example engaged us concerning colonialism and the violence wreaked upon the third world by the first world. Robin Blass spoke of memory and the Native American experience.

Kurt Johannessen’s piece on Saturday night was obscure. No one in the room could speak with any confidence as to what the piece was about. What did the stack of paper mean? Or the vase full of sesame seeds? Or the small paper envelopes placed so carefully on the floor? Why did he strew the sheets of paper on the floor? Or show the contents of the small envelopes to just a few people in the audience?

Most likely Johannessen himself would have no clear explanation as to why he placed the bits of dust on the woman’s shoe, or why he manipulated the pencil leads and placed them in the small glass vial. Further Johannesssen would likely object to my attempt to infuse these actions with an explanation.

Perhaps his action of strewing the sheets of paper one by one onto the gallery floor was evocative of the destruction of the Twin Towers that morning when the paper of hundreds of offices rained down upon the streets of lower Manhattan. Perhaps not.

When Johannessen pushed his hand into the vase of sesame seeds with such effort, and then removed it to allow the seeds to rain down upon the sheets of paper each with a final tiny click, what did it mean?

Rodolfe-Yves Lapointe posed a similar question in his performance rebus last Sunday, “Watt Ham High Dough Wing Ear?”. This of course remains unanswered, and I was not able to respond to my friend’s questions either.

Suvi on the other hand presented the crowd a spoken narrative and a subject. It was a bit difficult to follow her English, which was unfortunate because what she had to say was interesting.

Her piece was about kissing. I know this because she had members of the audience kiss the stranger next to them. Her patter was all about kissing, asking us to muse on the kiss of the frog and fruits, of crack addicts and movie stars. The video screen also presented an animation that continually morphed back and forth between a face and two luscious red lips.

On three army cots there were forms covered in white sheets, which Suvi revealed one by one. The first form uncovered was of “Rescue Annie”, a doll used to practice mouth-to-mouth resuscitation techniques. The face of this doll is that of the “L’inconnu de la Seine”, a nameless young woman fished out of the river Seine in the late eighteen hundreds.

Her death mask was considered to be the quintessence of beauty in the early part of the twentieth century. The people who made “Rescue Annie” took her face as their model. As such the face of this anonymous suicide became the most kissed face in the world.

The second cot contained another doll used to elicit responses from abused or traumatized children. On the third cot was “Britney Bitch” a blow-up companion complete with several orifices.

Suvi ended the piece by showing us how scensters in Finland circumvent liquor regulations at music events. She injected an apple with a dark liquid, presumably hard alcohol. Taking a bite she gagged, fell to the floor and feigned death till she was awakened with a kiss.

After the show Robbie told me that this was how Alan Turing died. (The inventor of the computer.) His favorite movie was “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”. After being persecuted in England for his homosexuality, he injected cyanide into an apple and took a bite. This apple later became the logo for some computer company.

Arti Grabowski should have 911 on speed dial when he performs. He crushes drinking glasses with a heavy river stone duct-taped to his shoe. He nails the other shoe to a chair. There is drinking. There is a session of mumbly-peg with a long sharp kitchen knife.

One imagines the conversation with the doctor in ER, “Mr. Grabowski, why is there a large stone duct-taped to your shoe?”

Mr. Grabowski is a clown. We know this because he spray paints his face just like one. First the whiteface, then black for the eyes and then a broad red smear for the mouth. He adds accents in black by placing his hand over his face and spraying again.

The soundtrack is a voice repeating in big greasy tones “No, No, No”, as he pulls out the long and very sharp kitchen knife which he stabs into the seat of a wooden chair, on cue it changes to the word “Ouch”.

Using a small hand held video camera the size of a thumb drive, Grabowski filmed himself and the objects of his destruction in extreme close-up. The images were projected onto a screen behind him.

The result is a disturbing close-up on his absurd unfunny actions. We all like to laugh at the misfortune of others, but Grabowski pushes the effect to an extreme. He walks with one large stone taped to his foot, the other foot nailed to a chair. He spray paints a finger blood red and sticks it between his lips, slowly moving it, in and out, for a juicy and xxx-rated clip on the big screen behind him.

After difficult crossing from one side of the room to the other, tearing off a sleeve, smashing a row of drinking glasses on the floor. He made his way to a kitchen table.

By rapping its surface with his hands and again stabbing it with the kitchen knife it became apparent that the table was miced. He began playing the table, its high-pitched modulated sounds mixing with the voice on his soundtrack.

Arti concluded the piece by hacking the stone off his show and freeing his foot from the shoe nailed to the chair. He climbed up on the table and played a game with the knife, dropping it above his naked foot, which he moved a way at the last instant.

Climbing down back onto his chair, he leaned over the table and taking the table knife he hacked off one of its legs. At that point he fell off the table, once his feet touched the floor he stood up and threw the table into the centre of the room. Finis.

Again it would be impossible to say what Grabowski’s piece was about.

In his “Notes to Literature”, Adorno speaking on the problem of modern art suggests that the modern work of art tells the truth about society “all the more accurately, the less that it takes society as its subject.” The tension between expression and meaning remains unresolved, as we witnessed Saturday night.



re-LIVE Vancouver was a tableau of tribute artworks at VIVO Media Arts Centre on September 25 2011. Installed like a gallery, it became an art exhibition with live art works that were scraping, rubbing, running around, wiggling and jiggling in the corners and along the walls.

Sponsored by the City of Vancouver’s 125th Anniversary Grant Program, it was a reiteration and redistribution of performative creations by some of this city’s most iconic artists. In alphabetical order:

Warren Arcan, Kate Craig, Margaret Dragu, Rodney Graham, Glenn Lewis, Vicent Trasov, and U-J3RK5 (Ian Wallace, Jeff Wall, Rodney Graham –again, Kitty Byrne, Colin Griffiths, Danice McLeod, Frank Ramirez, David Wisdom).

Glenn Lewis and Margaret Dragu were in audience. (Maybe others from that list too, but I wouldn’t have known them.) Kate Craig passed away in 2002, so I am quite sure that she wasn’t there, though a number of women were kind of dressed like her.

How do we do tributes? Why do we re-iterate, repeat, re-imagine, remark, re-play, re-use, repeat, appropriate, re-make, re-stage… ? If we remark on something do we assign it new meaning? If we copy the motions –practice them with our limbs, do we become the past for a moment, or do we ingest them and then finally change their meanings? Who authors the past, when it gets repeated? Derrida said that the original use should not be prioritized over the secondary. In the late 60s Foucault predicted that by now we would be over the author-thing.

Curtis Grahauer’s empty stage was funny. Even though it was a karaoke invitation – the mikes, the music and the words were all in place for us to play and sing along—no one dared to touch the setup, which was meant to exactly mimic the placement of the 8 band members as they were posed on their album cover. The absent rock band. Is anyone counting, how many local tributes have been turned down by the most famed of that crew? (OK forget about them. No one wants to sing along with them anyway.)

Ron Tran’s Peanut, Leopard, Sharks miniaturized the most familiar of performance art props from Vancouver’s early performance art days and put them into the hands and onto the bodies of a pack of preschoolers who were let loose in the gallery for the first couple of hours of the evening. Yes, performance art was a preschooler in Vancouver when these characters were first running and swimming around in circles. The original artists had ridiculous aspirations of taking over the city and the world. (I can imagine them falling down from laughing so hard, just like those kids.) In some ways, Vancouver art has lived up to their impossible international ambitions, of which this show is a reminder. But the reiteration of these works on the bodies of really tiny kids also puts those antics into a kind of disappointing contrast with all of the really smart and serious, institutionally bound, art that gets internationally distributed these days. Only preschoolers have fun now?

Image - New York Corres Sponge Dance School of Vancouver © Glenn Lewis

Both Raymond Boisjoly and Francisco-Fernado Granados produced performances by themselves, in front of us, and in response to more senior artists who had also performed at this year’s LIVE. Boisjoy made a simple drawing that spoke back to the overall work of Warren Arcan who had performed Why I am So Beautiful a week earlier in the same venue (VIVO Media Arts Centre). Boisjoly and I talked about Arcan’s particular interest in using worn and familiar materials to work out fantastically intense psychological meanings. In Why I am So Beautiful Arcan used every objects from his mysterious box to speak variations of that beautifully twisted scenario of the love affair. It is complicated, the love affair. The third or the forth or the fifth love affair. First with a stone, then a stuffed bear… then on the phone. Complex, yet comfortable in its familiarity, and increasingly uneasy.

That is only one reading of Boisjoly’s simple gesture of using a beer can to scratch the text,


, onto the gallery wall while everyone partied.

When I read it after he had finished, I was thinking that if the artist knew how many times I uttered the words “its complicated” to newcomers to Canada who didn’t understand things like the government’s abysmal record of unfair dealings with Aboriginal Peoples, he would be uneasy. What do those uneasy words mean?: I can’t take the time to explain that issue to you…or I don’t know the answer but I can’t admit that I don’t know…or I cannot speak….?

Francisco-Fernado Granados’ work was a direct appropriation of a previously performed work by Margaret Dragu. Like a piece of sampled music, he took the smallest of elements from her Western Front performance that is briefly captured here ( - watch for the tiny clip of Dragu leaving a kiss mark) and repeated it until the surface that he worked against ran out. This work solidified the way that live art was inserted into the gallery form, seemingly a curatorial intention of the re-LIVE Vancouver event. Granados himself has been inserting his intense physical gestures into gallery settings as a way of marking the space with his slowly moving body. His body has been leaving its mark on these revered spaces with materials that belong more on the surface of paper rather than on the body: a red marker in this work, untitled (spatial profiling), or gold gilt (gold in his work is a recurring mark for mourning –of gold mine victims in Guatemala and of a lost lover) as in the recent Crown performance and installation at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver. Margaret Dragu’s participation in Chaos a day earlier for LIVE in the courtyard behind the Firehall Arts Centre was much less about imprinting the body on a cultural or exhibition space, than about working through an evolving series of gestures and materials in a socially evolving context. During Chaos, the audience came and went as four women performers, Sinead O’Donnell, Judith Price, Grace Salez and Margaret Dragu, invented relations with each other, the space and the materials that they had gathered. This was one of those largely generous events during which the audience could ingest a repertoire of actions and reactions that held uncanny fascination and imaginative potential. From a long practice of making those generous Aktions available for her audiences, Dragu’s single kiss mark on the white wall (1999?) was the action that Granados chose to reiterate and practice until he was stained and probably a little sore.

Thank you LIVE 2011 for marking up the city again with new and renewed actions, gestures, forms, poems, songs, texts, uncanny relations…. in such a large and generous display.

Lois Klassen