Tiny Town

THUMBNAIL SKETCHES FROM A TINY TOWNdaily social media postings for VISUALEYEZ Performance Festival 2004

“You should apply to Edmonton’s VISUALEYEZ festival,” suggested friends Paul Couillard (Toronto), Kirsten Forkert (Vancouver), and Tagny Duff (Montreal). When I was accepted, they were happy for me, assured me I would have a fabulous time, and also cautioned me it was “a small festival”. Did that mean the city was tiny, the gallery petite, the art scene miniscule? Or did they assume I’d be disappointed by anything less than hundreds of clamouring fans?

Founded and curated by Todd Janes, 2004 was the fifth annual VISUALEYEZ festival of performance & time-based art and it had a curatorial theme of TIME. In Todd’s emails, he expressed the hope festival artists would stay for the entire week, see all of the other artists’ works, be open to new ideas/experience(s), and participate in panels/round tables.
For me, the festival was an intense laboratory to make performance work while engaging in a 7-day discussion of time, duration, community and family as it impacts performance art practice.

SATURDAY MAY 22nd, 2004

Always a nervous flyer, I drank valerian tea on WESTJET that is the enthusiastic, denim-clad, non-union airline that appears marinated in Deep Irony as evidenced by flight crews’ sardonic tolerance of regulation French safety instructions. Landing in Edmonton, I was also nervous I might be walking into one of those performance festivals featuring artists practicing pig evisceration, self-mutilation and burning buildings. Instead, galerie latitude 53’s warm and helpful administrator Coralee welcomed me, whisked me to our seedy downtown hotel, and then straight over to Latitude 53 where I met festival artists Rasmus Jergensen (Norway), Darren O’Donnell (Toronto), Christine Stoddard (Vancouver), Mandala Collective (Calgary), Keiko Kamma (Japan), LR Vineberg (Montreal/Regina), and Manon de Pauw (Montreal). I knew Eric Léterneau (Montreal) and Julianna Barabas (Vancouver). Julianna and Christine were preparing a large spread of food for their performance. I was just in time.

I met Julianna Barabas a year ago in my girlfriend Susan Stewart’s art class at Emily Carr. Julianna had done the first tattooed lines for Seamline that is the making of a tattoo marking the anatomical anterior and posterior of her body. Prior to VISUALEYEZ, Julianna had performed 12 segments of this eternal marking. She was celebrating the final “splitting” of the body at galerie Latitude 53 on Saturday May 22nd. The 6-hour performance was a durational work in collaboration with her tattoo artist and attendant Christine Stoddard. This triad executed an epic ritual including the elements of pain, breath, attendance/witness, Victoriana, and also a signifying of major female passages – wedding, birth, and death. The performance action was full of pain, laughter, healing, breathing, and joy. The triad took breaks to eat, drink, and talk and were entirely comfortable in their bodies as well as the act of performance. Their combined focus on the action was tangible. Some audience members took turns holding Julianna’s hand through some of the more painful spots.

Julianna’s work embodied the essence of performance art: simple but complex. In other words, what appears to be a simple action has been chosen and executed by the artist to open both meaning and time.

Because Juliana had lived in Edmonton, her friends/neighbours/co-workers came and went during the more than 6-hour event. Even Julianna’s very pregnant sister (who gave birth to a baby boy 2 days later) and their mother came. However, it was other festival artists and gallery workers who stayed for the entire event. There was an unspoken need for us to bear witness to each other’s work. By 10:00 pm, sterilized and wrapped in saran wrap, Julianna was exhausted and transported to her hotel room.

SUNDAY MAY 23rd, 2004

Gazebo Park, the friendly home of skateboarders, street hustlers, drunks & drifters, is around the corner from coffee culture strip Whyte Avenue and ringed by four live theatres. Edmonton has an active (even throbbing) theatre and spoken art scene. In this theatrical milieu, Norway’s Rasmus Jorgensen presented clocks, mothers and been here before’s an hour-long performance cycle four times over two days.

Employing a hill of dirt, a tablespoon, and his very able body and voice, Rasmus enacted a classic birth/death/birth cycle designed to be a metaphor for art creation and the human condition. Using a child-like voice, he ran around the perimeter of the park begging passers-by to “come see my show” and then gave a frantic and fearful countdown
“2 minutes 15 seconds until showtime!” until the appointed hour. Punctually on the dot, he birthed himself out of the hill of dirt, grew from breast-sucking baby to rejected toddler, matured through existential crises, achieved a moment of tragedy digging for his dead mother in the hill of dirt, became and old man and died on the dirt hill when the cycle of waiting for the dreaded but inevitable “showtime” began again.

Driven by theatrical conventions and aesthetics, Rasmus’s work served as the festival’s exploration of the performance art/theatre boundary that is difficult to articulate and yet is always a component of the discussion by performance art practitioners at conferences, festivals, and panels. His piece could have been performed in any one of the four theatres surrounding the park and, in fact, it begged development into a “tour de force” honed by an experienced theatre director who would sculpt the beats towards a traditional climax and denouement.

I had been reading Extreme Exposure (an anthology of solo performance texts from the Twentieth Century), edited by Jo Bonnney, published by Theatre Communications Group, NY, NY, 2000. This American book encompasses four aspects of solo performance: performance artists that are monologuists/ranters (eg. Eric Bogosian, Tim Miller, Rachel Rosenthal, Guillermo Gomez-Pena); community theatre activists
(eg. Rhodessa Jones, John O’Keefe); poets (eg. Dael Orlandersmith, David Cale) and stand-up comics (eg. Whoopi Goldberg, Lenny Bruce, Moms Mabley). The early ‘80’s had more of this kind of performance art in galleries and nightclubs especially in America and England. Now, without the political and social context of the times, I see this work clearly as theatre but know it has contributed to the development of performance art.

MONDAY MAY 24th, 2004

Still thinking about my feelings about Rasmus’s performance and the Exposure texts, I talked with Darren O’Donnell of Toronto. Darren is a successful theatre playwright, producer, and director as well as novelist. He described himself as “frustrated by theatre” and was “more interested in the possibilities of performance art”. For four days, he based himself in Gazebo Park and asked people who gathered for his event Talking Creature to go out and invite strangers to come and converse with him and others in the park for unstructured and un-agendaed conversation.

I took the LRT to Gazebo Park to meet Darren’s public, other Visualeyez artists, and the park’s rounders/regulars including the native male/female street duo with smokes, shopping cart and booze that were fabulous performers 24/7. The man stripped to his pants, smoked, and danced to unheard music while the woman made puns (“I got a big heart – see?” as she held a purloined heart-shaped cookie tin to her chest and yelled good naturedly, “This is MY street — you all can GET LOST!” and then laughed.

I found it hard soliciting strangers. It brought back memories of my failed job attempts as credit card solicitor for The Bay and telephone market researcher for Lee’s Blue Jeans. Strangers I approached on Whyte Avenue thought I was looking for either money or sex. If neither of those, surely I must be a religious fanatic seeking their soul. The piba player busking on Whyte didn’t want to leave his position. Fair enough. Some people I invited to Talking Creature said “maybe” but didn’t show. It wasn’t a surprise that Darren (who is centred and outgoing) and LR Vineberg (who is a committed and compassionate individual) procured the most people followed closely by Darren’s mother. Darren designed this piece, in part, as a response to his mom’s unusual and intense but natural ability to solicit strangers and engage them in intimate conversations.

Christine Stoddard’s performance, The Hospital of Her Becoming, was a 5-6 hour installation/performance work shown in the gallery Monday and Tuesday. She created a cool and clinical space criss-crossed by saran wrap banners, fixed by white sculptural plinths, and accessorized by nail clippers, bandages, bowls of water, soap, spring water and rice cake-like sticks. Dressed completely in white, repeating body gestures around heart and breath, Christine would suddenly look out with the clarity of the dying just before they actually leave the planet. Her focussed yet non-theatrical look pierced the observer’s gaze. Her looking out did not feel manipulative or phoney. She re-enacted this gaze through ritual for nearly 6 hours as a way of processing/accepting death and dying in her life and in our lives like a priestess for our community. She wrote texts in nearly invisible silver ink on barely-there saran wrap including:

On this cold night the snow is failing blue
Soft points of lightness catch the sounds of silence.

Time slows to the pace of a fractured breath.

This is not a waiting room.

She aches with the deep hot of a bloody disease.

Heat in the middle of an ice stone.

Christine’s performance of waiting, grieving, clipping, cleansing and bandaging in the sci-fi/medical environment oscillated between the experiences of the patient with the caregiver. It highlighted the gap between sleep/awake and living/dead. I watched 3 ½ hours of her performance and during half of that time a retired Edmonton farmer who appeared unable/unwilling to leave the space joined me. Gallery personnel said he was an annual attendee to VISUALEYEZ but I thought of him as an angel/witness bringing life experience to the performance and moving it forward spiritually.

Monday evening was the first of two performances of Mythological Narrative by the Mandala Collective, a group of emerging artists and recent graduates of the Alberta College of Art in Calgary. They re-enacted an aboriginal myth as a musical theatre piece that was heavily costumed, scenic-set, and propped with far too many plush toy puppets. Being a hippie myself, I valued their environmental concerns, but their work, even viewed as theatre, needed more research, development and direction. And – what about the overhanging question of appropriating aboriginal voice?

TUESDAY MAY 25th, 2004

On September 29th, 2001, Eric Léterneau began Standard II and has performed it over 200 times in many cities around the globe. It is a one-on-one performance art work: the audience member chooses a spot for 3 minutes of silent meditation for a country
(selected in alphabetical order by Eric) that has suffered national or domestic violence. Eric is open to discussion and other “responses to his response” to the state of our precarious world. I had observed Eric preparing for some of these actions in Montreal
(a sealed storefront window) and Toronto (a seedy hotel room) and was intrigued but VISUALEYEZ was the first opportunity for me to participate. Eric and I scheduled an appointment right after Darren’s performance in Gazebo Park.

My country turned out to be Kiribati – a group of South Sea Islands between the American-dominated Marshall Islands and the French-dominated Bikini Islands. He video-documents the location of the meditation (for me — a bench book-ended by a 7-11/Roger’s Video and a protestant church) and by audiotape the 3 minute “silent” meditation (in my case the car/motorcycle traffic of Whyte Avenue). Eric was busy throughout the festival week with VISUALEYEZ artists and gallery workers as well as the general public responding to radio programmes and newspaper articles covering the festival. Loquacious and social, Eric found it easy to meet strangers in coffee shops and bars and bring them to the gallery to participate in his and other artists’ projects. This profound work is Buddhist and political while investigating performance art’s eternal question of public/private on a deep and personal level.

In the evening, I saw the Mandala Collective again. Their performance was followed by the first of the round tables – this one about performance process that naturally concentrated on the Mandala collective as we had just seen their work. Todd Janes, a nurturing curator and community-builder, helped the group introduce non-confrontational questions to the collective in a supportive way. Members of the collective said they were not taught performance art of its history at the Alberta College of Art and they appeared unaware of the critical discourse around the practice. The question of appropriation that transverses all disciplines was not answered by the collective in context of the discourse around the issue. Instead, two of the collective responded personally explaining they had lived in rural Alberta communities with extremely high percentages of First Nations people.

WEDNESDAY MAY 26th, 2004

I was lucky to be LR Vineberg’s roommate and able to talk with her about her creative process for I Will Not Remember the Details But I Will Know day & night, over organic salads with red wine, and while not-watching “Sex in the City” re-runs. We enjoyed rigorous discussions about performance, visual art and theatre. I was curious about her official and firm departure from theatre direction/production and film/TV acting to visual art and she was able to articulate the logic of her choices.

Lisa perched a comfy chair on a large mound of salt (preservation/history/the fate of Lot’s wife) and played a golden oldie radio station at a low but discernable volume on a small battered radio (more memory and memories of memories prismed through popular culture’s archives). She kept her back to us (learned from Sarah’s fatal flaw) and spent 4 hours drawing on the wall with graphite and telling us her personal stories.

Like General Idea’s mandate to approach fashion but never fall into it, LR Vineberg drew near to theatre without crossing over. A skilled storyteller and body-mover, she told the kind of stories we tell lovers, intimates and therapists. She talked and drew in an effort to divest her of the burden of personal history or as an attempt to move forward. Vineberg’s performance was cinematic, riveting, sad and funny. In fact, the experience of attending this performance was (and is) more moving and complex than my description can hint.

Later that evening was the second round table discussion. Todd asked leading questions about durational performance work, time, and our perception(s) of time. We talked about how that applied to the works we had seen so far and about more generally about this vibrant aspect of our practice seen nationally and internationally. There was a rigorous discussion about the pros and cons of documentation in performance art climaxing in LR Vineberg’s testimonial that word-of-mouth stories along with still photograph documents are a nourishing and vital part of our histories.

THURSDAY MAY 27th, 2004

For a few minutes every day, I visited Paperwork, Montreal artist Manon de Pauw’s performance/installation in the archive room of the gallery. However, on Thursday I sat in the room for over an hour. A ½ size video loop of Manon lying on a pile of papers is projected onto a floor that also has real papers cut to the same scale as the projection. Manon sweeps the pages slowly out of and back into order. We see the action in a smaller-than-life size but hear the action amplified louder than reality.

Sharply conceived and well executed, Manon allows her video personae to perform in her absence and therefore is able to execute durational work while not actually being in the building. Quite the trick! Anyone who has endured a repetitious office (or other) job can relate to the surface meaning of Manon’s performance/installation but it is her deft use of scale (actual/slightly smaller than actual), reality (real papers/projected papers), repetition, and point-of-view (aerial camera shot) that makes this work complex and gratifying. Manon was an articulate and very observant speaker in the round tables.

Later that evening, the festival travelled to Greenwoods Book Shoppe for Darren O’Donnell’s launch of Your Secrets Sleep with Me published by Coach House Press. A former Edmontonian, Darren pulled in an army of relatives and childhood friends as well as festivalgoers. He was an entertaining and frenetic reader as he shared selections from his book described as a “caffeinated novel” that serves as a “critique of power and politics” set after Toronto’s CN Tower has fallen into the lake.

After the reading was the third and final round table discussion about international approaches to performance art. Keiko Kamma of Japan spoke about the three historical streams of performance art in Japan. Eric Leternou of Montreal, Quebec reported on IAPO’s conference in Bandung. For me, this was the most informative of the round tables and made me want to travel farther into the unfamiliar geographically and in other ways.

FRIDAY MAY 28th, 2004

I spent the day shopping and talking about art with my new roommate Julianna Barabas. Julianna took me to Dot’s Fashion Liquidation Outlet — a place so infamous even the front desk staff of our seedy hotel knew of its notoriety for great deals: two dollars for a pink cashmere shrug, three dollars for a designer tee-shirt; if you are ever in Edmonton…

Because I arrived on the second day of the festival, I had missed Keiko’s first performance on Saturday May 22nd so I was happy she was scheduled to do another Friday evening. During our fest-week, I saw Keiko smoking cigarettes on the patio deck of the gallery, attending every performance despite a nasty SI/lumbar injury, and occasionally tangoing with her digital video camera in the parking lot. What was she up to? Someone told me she was also a psychic so I was intrigued. There is a small coterie of performance artists with similar concerns about psyche and chance (Sherry Higgins (Toronto), Tagny Duff, even Joseph Beuys had actions with his “little cards”).

Once Upon a Time in Your Life was an interactive performance about time. Keiko had a playful, visual, beatnik, and flux-ian joy infused in her work. She gave everyone an opportunity to play with time and our attachment/sense of time.

Keiko recorded audio/video portraits of everyone’s wishes (or imaginings) ten years hence and promised to send the evening’s portrait to us in ten years time.

Keiko asked small groups to close their eyes and count to 60. Several dreamy-eyed individuals felt one minute after, in fact, 2 minutes had passed. A speedy soul shot his hand up at 40 seconds. Only Eric Léterneau, a former CBC radio broadcaster, hit the 60 seconds of his internal clock with the analogue.

Keiko passed her hat full of hand-written fortunes including: moment, kiss, repeat, eternal, etc. but advised us she was not responsible if this was or was not meaningful in our future.

Keiko played an electric keyboard drone with her purse while projecting slightly scrambled video of her tangos in the parking lot, walks around the gallery area, and ascending the stairs. At first fractured and speedy, the video slowed and became more clear and less cut up until the audience viewed samples of the event in which they had participated. As a final performative gesture regarding time, Keiko scotch-taped up her title, credits and date and it was all over until we hear from her ten years from whatever we might call “now”.

SATURDAY MAY 29th, 2004

I made a performance called Rising. I spent eight hours making bread, teaching people how to make bread, and collecting bread stories. The gallery was awash in a video projection of three seasons of the fishing village where I live (Finn Slough, BC). The projection was large enough that gallery visitors could “walk up” the path to my house when they stood inside the cooking space with me. A very old friend I had not seen in 25 years dropped by, as well as lots more mothers, and some younger artists. They told great stories. It is an honour when someone gives you his or her story.

Coralee made and served vanilla earl grey tea while we waited for the breads to rise. I served curried lentil crock-pot soup while we waited for the bread to bake.

Julianna made a killer-bee batch of classic white French bread and she stayed with me the entire eight-hour shift only popping out to buy the chocolate for pain au chocolat. Ted (a festival regular, scholar, and divinity student) blessed the bread before we broke and ate it. Coralee served red wine. We continued baking, eating and drinking for hours – even while the gallery staff set up for the closing party. Like a cross-fade, the party grew clearer and the baking grew smaller. Finally, we put the ovens away. The DJ took over.

However, there still may be a slice or two of the performance bread neatly saran-wrapped and frozen in galerie latitude 53’s freezer…

JUNE 4th, 2004

Back in real time, the festival is far away physically but still close to my psyche.
I describe VISUALEYEZ as a jewel of a festival – part laboratory, part festival, part retreat. It is small enough to allow safety, support and experimentation for visiting artists but public enough to meet a variety of local artists and general public.

Todd Janes creates a tribal community of festival artists within the larger community he and his co-workers create at Latitude 53 that is a mix of visual, theatre, and spoken word artists, DJ club dance/music scene, students, and various cultural workers and consumers.
Todd has the leadership and intuitive skills that I have more seen from feminist leaders inside women’s collectives. Performance art, time-based work and the development of community are very important to this artist and administrator. My friends were right to predict I would have a fabulous time at Visualeyez. A big experience in a tiny town.

Submitted with respect,
Margaret Dragu (Finn Slough)