Posted by Adam on September 19th, 2013
Mariane Bourcheix-Laporte rolls up to Latitude 53 to finish her project, during the Visualeyez patio party. Photo by Daniel Evans.
Posted by Joshua Schwebel on September 19th, 2013
Visualeyez is over, we have all returned to the cities that we came from, our daily routines are back in place. It is now four days since I returned to Montreal, and I am having a hard time writing this conclusion, as though I can keep the festival going by not finishing. If I don’t write a conclusion maybe it’s not over?
This is not serving its purpose however, as the procrastination does not delay the withdrawal or loneliness, it only delays writing about it.
Visualeyez, for me, is the type of short interruption that reminds me of my reasons for becoming an artist. Intense discussions, new and committed relationships. The opportunity to reconsider previously held convictions in light of new discoveries and challenges. The barriers between professional contacts and friends eroded quickly in the morning discussions. Now I consider the other artists friends. This is so different from other professional art engagements of the type that involve the consecutive performance of artworks sans discussions. There, the other artists remain acquaintances, never more, conversation remains on the level of professional chatter. Nobody exposes more, beyond the strictly defined frame of the work. At Visualeyez, spending a week together, working through, together, the larger implications of each others’ projects and processes, we become meaningful to each other, and our work becomes more meaningful to ourselves.
The structure of Visualeyez is about vulnerability every year, since by its very format, by putting artists together for a sustained amount of time, by structuring discussions that ask more of the works and the artists, by mixing the social and the professional to the point that they interpenetrate (not that way, Todd), the level of energy and engagement is much greater, and more unpredictable. It is vulnerable because we care, and caring is always an uncertain thing to show others, since it can backfire into shame and humiliation so easily.
All of this to say I miss the festival. I miss the opportunity to talk about art every day, I even miss the imperative to write about art every day. And I’m grateful to have had the chance to be a part of this year’s festival. Thank you, everyone.
Posted by Joshua Schwebel on September 19th, 2013
Watching Jeff Huckleberry’s performance was like watching an exorcism.
I mean, it started out being funny, but I was very uncertain where it would go. He began, after all, with his testicles, and then he took off his shirt. These tropes of the male artist as creator have, in my opinionated opinion, been done to death, and in general really turn me off. And yet Jeff, somehow, speaks this language of maleness with so little affect, in such a way that I almost immediately dropped my defences and engaged completely with the work. But let me describe some of the symbols he summoned up in this work. How they aggregated, sequentially, into the composition we saw.
It was jarring to be faced with his junk so directly, as the first thing he did. This set a tone, a mood, a level of engagement. To begin a work with one’s testicles sets an imperative for the work to intensify, since it sets the stakes quite high. But the fact that he was measuring his testicles instead of his penis was odd: after all, testicles are funny, pendulous, unaesthetic, and intensely vulnerable parts of a man’s body. To measure how low they hang to the ground is to attempt to measure some non-measurable, like the atmosphere or the mood, the relative temperature in the room, his own level of relaxation or comfort, his aging, sagging body. Somehow this signifier of descent suggested to me a relationship to the past and to the future – to a reproductive lineage - and to a condition of descent as of falling, or of having fallen.
Next, he attacked his body, dousing himself in antiseptic and coffee, a rough, hardened gesture to buffer the body’s sensitive surface in a sharp stinging pain as if to say, the world is cruel, learn how to live with this, how to be numb to it. Underneath this, I imagined an archetypal father’s voice teaching these actions, this attitude, this strategy. I imagine a younger Jeff seeing it’s effects both in the short and long term.
We watched as in the gallery he got dressed in a labourer’s suit: white canvas, white cotton, smears of old paint, dirty knees. The morning ritual complete, he buffered his exterior even further, incorporating as many beers as he could physically accommodate between his clothing and his skin. Jeff took more and more beer onto/into his body. Placed between his skin and his clothing as though the bottles themselves could protect him from the threats of the hard world, their implied consumption a further gesture towards the machismo of beer as a psychological buffer. Beer, the drink of construction workers, the drink that is consumed after work to relax, to fraternally clutch other men’s shoulders, not to get drunk, necessarily, if you are big enough to hold it.
Clanking stiffly, Jeff embraced the huge length of lumber set along the floor.He kneels, clutching, loving. I almost expected him to begin thrusting his glass-armoured pelvis into the wood. Instead (thankfully), he does something tender, almost: he hugs the unwieldy and large body of wood, attempting to hold all these different sized and incredibly heavy planks together. He rolls, and the weight of his body turns the wood-pile over on top of him. From beneath the wood, we hear bottles begin to shatter. But as the bottles break, their intended effect as a protective mechanism fails, turns inwards, hurts instead of preventing hurt. They become cruel, sharp, a minefield of potential lacerations.
And the wood reminds me of a stubborn old man, refusing to accept help, yet in this obdurate independence, ends up burying his son beneath its heavy inflexibility. The way the wood moved, its inanimate clumsiness and the loving care that Jeff took to guide it across the gallery, the way it fell on his body and punished him for his care. How Jeff continued to roll with it despite the fact that he was breaking all of his beer bottles, potentially cutting himself, losing his barrier between himself and the world in order to move this wooden body – all of this seemed greater, haunted, significant.
When Jeff stands up, and the wood becomes erect, it is a different body, a different act. It still punishes him, but his role in relation to it is no longer as its caretaker. Now, he is trying to work it against itself – to bend it, to force it to accommodate his body. I think here of the struggle between a younger man and his father, a younger man who has realized his strength, and attempts to enter the established order on his own terms. And yet, by forcing his body into the wood, it cripples him: he becomes weakened by it, unable to walk, crying out in the pain and pressure. Doused in white and then black paint, his body becomes grey – a compromised shade. This, after all, is how it ends up after our war of ideals and power struggles: a society of maimed, desensitized, greyed out and hindered bodies, forcing it down, drowning it out, in order to do what? to keep moving forward.
I think about when I was much younger and I flirted with this type of masculinity. The kind that gets stupid-drunk, works fucking hard, and then feels invincible. Some people could achieve a perfect grace living like this, and I had the greatest admiration for those I met who would ride a bicycle home handsfree at 4am after 4 or 6 pints and an 8 or 9 hour day of heavy lifting. For them, and for myself at that age, pain became fuel, a way of drowning out the past and the future in a feeling that left no room for anything else. The intensity of Jeff’s strength, his commitment, his attitude to the pain he is producing in himself and the ghosts he is calling up and expelling – I recognize these people, one of whom I had once tried to become, in him.
After all of this, he asks for our help to measure his testicles again. Have they changed? Have the ghosts he has cast out effected his weak, dangling connection to the past and the future?
Posted by Adam on September 18th, 2013
Another shot of Jeff Huckleberry in performance last week, photo by Owen Murray/ommphoto.ca.
Posted by Joshua Schwebel on September 18th, 2013
Over the course of six days, for two hours each day, Mariane Bourcheix-Laporte has been covering the circumference of downtown Edmonton by rolling. Lying cross-wise on the sidewalk, she propels her body slowly, yet efficiently, along her route. By rolling, she exposes the entire surface of her body to the surface of the city. She literally makes contact with the city as she traverses its terrain.
I walked behind her rolling body on two of these itineraries, watching how people interacted with her prostate yet active body, how she navigated the city’s sidewalks, curbs, and intersections. As she rolled, she drew quite a bit of attention, mostly concern, occasionally anger or laughs. She rolled in the company of two spotters, who documented her movement, kept watch in case she encountered trouble, and helped her safely cross at busy intersections.
As she explained in her artist’s talk, this work is the product of ongoing research examining the relationship between urban space and architecture: she is interested in how urban architecture preconditions certain specific forms for the movement of bodies, and thereby privileges certain forms of (able/ableist) embodiment. She describes how urban architecture presupposes the types of movement appropriate for a space. Edmonton, with its wide roads and dispersed sprawl, is a city that has clearly been designed around its cars.
Her previous work examined what she calls ‘interstitial spaces’ in the city, by which she means spaces that are in-between the functional organization of urban space. Gaps under or between structures, that have yet to be closed in or noticed. By placing or posing her inert body within these interstitial spaces, she draws attention to their potential for activation, conceptual or otherwise. In this new work of rolling, she activates every inch of the sidewalk that she covers.These spaces can be appropriated or interpreted – détourned.
By rolling, she hopes to disrupt the typical mode of moving through the city, and make visible the possibility of other modes of moving. Rolling equally references the wheelchair and the skateboard, yet also questions how the city and the body intersect at an even more fundamental level, for being an unconsidered method for navigating urban space. Her form of propulsion does not break any laws, yet it does end up drawing the attention of the police. After noticing her movement and pulling up to take her information, officers trailed her for some time, waiting for a concrete reason to stop her progress. This occurred when she couldn’t get across an intersection in the duration of a traffic light, for which they charged her with both jay-walking and obstruction of traffic. This ambush caused many of us to indignantly ask whether the police would charge someone with a legitimate disability in a similar way for not being able to cross an intersection quickly enough for the flow of traffic. This example demonstrates exactly how urban architecture works to privilege and constrain how bodies move. As a further example, I remember watching Mariane roll past a young child being pushed in a stroller. The child became physically invigorated watching her move down the street. I could just read the expression on its face, the little wheels in its brain going wild, recognizing that rolling is possibly a way that people can move.
This radical intervention into urban space unlocks the potential for other bodies to exist and move differently through this space. Moreover, it suggests other forms of architecture that might exist were we to privilege other forms of movement.
Early on in our meetings, Mariane described who she hopes to engage with this work. In her view, all encounters with the work are equally valid, from the person who sees her body in the street without being able to categorize it as art, to the art spectator who has specifically come to find her in action. The first level of encounter, with the unprepared or uninformed passer-by, she calls the incidental encounter. In the case of such an encounter, it is possible that passing Mariane’s body may provoke a concatenation of questions about why she moves in such a way, and consequently why the rest of us move otherwise.
To document this journey, Mariane has worn a GoPro camera mounted on her head. As she rolls the camera captures 1 image every 10 seconds. These fish-eye images play in the gallery, presenting the viewer with a similar perspective to the one occupied by Mariane as she rolls. The images are pristinely clear, beautifully coloured, and perfectly in focus. The fish-eye distortion adds to the circularity of the work. This documentation precisely disorients the viewer: shifting ones perspective with each rotating image. The horizon line of a picture is traditionally hung at eye level to promote identification between the visual perspective of the viewer and the image depicted. This is the standard, since it encourages the spectator to imagine him or herself within the image, as though the gallery and the Other space of representation were contiguous, as though the viewer’s imagination was the bridge between real and depicted world. By presenting the viewer with a continuously rotating horizon line, from the perspective of the ground, this documentation repositions the spectator into exactly the same state as Mariane was during her action. The difference being that while Mariane moves through the city by contact or touching its surface, we as spectators encounter this movement through an imaginary visual transposition.
Interestingly, and altogether not intended to be applied metaphorically, to achieve the work Mariane wears a Scopolamine patch behind her ear. This is an anti-vertigo drug, numbing her proprioceptive nerve located between her eye and inner ear. While rolling would typically be quite an upsetting action that would provoke intense nausea, by wearing this patch, Mariane is able to sustain an otherwise disorienting movement. Yet in order to do so, she must cut off her body’s capacity for perceiving its positioning in space. I find this interesting in relation to her documentation, which is transposing this very effect to its viewers by way of a continuously rotating horizon.
Posted by Joshua Schwebel on September 17th, 2013
The work took place on Friday night on Whyte Avenue, the busiest thoroughfare for Edmonton nightlife. Grey positioned himself on the curb, directly beside a parking lot that was deliberately chosen because it is the gathering-place for all of the city’s bikers. Leading up to the piece, Grey expressed concern that he didn’t want us as the “art” public interfering with his efforts to engage with the “real” people of Edmonton, so at first, we keep our distance, and let him determine the definition of his space and engagement.
Approaching the piece, we happen upon a small table piled with potatoes, a string of blue lights hung over it in a low archway, which on closer examination are illuminated plastic pill-bottles, and Grey, sitting forlornly at the table. Beside the table is a sign with hand-printed text in black sharpie on an unfolded cardboard box. As far as I can recall, it reads:
“Artist’s Statement: Another sob story. My mother died. These are her pill bottles. The last thing she could do was peel potatoes. She was tough and wonderful. Join me.”
There is a folding chair set up beside Grey, who is arranging the sign, the lights, and a small tape recorder. There are no other seats for an audience to watch comfortably, so we sit a respectful distance away against a wall. We wait for some indication that a performance has begun, but Grey appears as though he is comfortable with a scene that has as yet no focus point or determining structure. People pass, each, in their own way aware of the imperative to distinguish themselves, to stand out in the urban performance of a Friday night. Most obvious are the bikers and their loud, souped-up bikes roaring by and amping up the general auditory din. As the night stretches on, ever-drunker Bros hoot and shriek to each other as they pass. Classic cars cruise by behind Grey’s tiny booth. A man carrying a box of comic books seems almost compulsively intent on selling them. He passes several times, a nervous anxiety animating his movements. Some inebriated and obviously homeless men engage with us. Girls dressed up for a night out, some dogs being walked, some parents of young children. The street culture is strikingly loud and lively. All of this serves to upstage Grey, to distract us, to frustrate what seems to be an attempt for intimacy on the part of the artist.
Grey seems to have settled. While there are no sounds that can be heard above the din, it appears that Grey is playing a cassette, perhaps quietly singing, although his body language is quite minimal and private. Mariane gets up and walks over to join him. She seems animated and the two have what appears to be a happy interaction. She sings along to the cassette and they chat for about 5 minutes. People pass by, curious. Noticing the potatoes, reading the sign, and then continuing along the street. After Mariane, a festival volunteer takes the visitor’s seat. She and Grey engage for a long time. Then I go in. Grey seems comfortable, and we chat. I ask him about the plastic tubing tangled at his feet. I notice he has a tube around his neck, and he shows me that this was his mother’s breathing tube. He inserts the tubing into his nose, although it is not connected. We continue to talk, and it is actually the most open and animated I have yet to encounter him, as compared to his more introverted demeanour at the festival. He decides it is time to change acts, from singing along with cassettes to peeling the potatoes. I take a peeler and begin to work on the first potato. At this point a man and his child begin talking to Grey, who engages with him, leaving me to peel. I do so for about 5 potatoes, and then lose interest, as Grey is not aware of my level of participation at this point.
The festival volunteer takes over again. Grey is deep in conversation with the man crouching before him, for the time being unconcerned with whatever else is taking place. People from the audience move in and out of the visitor’s seat. Quickly a large group of festival people are surrounding the table, peeling potatoes vigourously while Grey arranges his signs, cassettes, and accoutrements like a stage hand. The general public streams by, laughing, noticing, not particularly concerned or interested. After what feels like a long time, Grey is still sitting, with a slightly changing configuration of festival volunteers and participants. So far as I can tell, nobody from outside the festival has sat with Grey or participated in any of his prepared actions, but I have a hard time sustaining my attention, with so much street activity around the work. Grey now has some boxes of cigarettes and is smoking. Other people are smoking too. I feel somewhat nauseated by the quantity of cigarettes, both for the fact that Grey wants the piece to continue until they are all smoked (did he anticipate that many engagements?), and out of a physical identification with the toxicity of consuming that amount of nicotine. Eventually he crouches over his cardboard sign and begins lighting each of the cigarettes, arranging them in smoking rows on top of the potatoes. To light them he holds each between his lips, perhaps as though kissing them. At this point he is entirely introverted, ignoring activity at the table or passersby and their snarky, provocative, or hostile banter. He then begins breaking and crushing the cigarettes, and then sprinkles some of the nicotine onto the skinned potatoes. We wonder if it has ended, if he has a planned conclusion. He lies his head on the tape player, a cigarette burning in his hand. After a few minutes Todd goes over to ask if it is over, and returns with the announcement that Grey has requested for people to clean up around his resting body. The piece seems to end in much the same way it began: with Grey passively accepting the happenstance of what goes on around him. I feel exhausted.
At the discussion the next day, we attempted to elaborate Grey’s intentions. While the work seemed to be an effort for intimacy, commemoration, or mourning, to us as spectators Grey appeared drowned out by the considerable distractions of the carousing street traffic. When we raised these issues, Grey maintained that all of these choices were deliberate, and seemed satisfied by the outcome of the work. The discussion that ensued did not result in any greater clarity around the piece.
Later, Grey and I discussed the theme of autobiography and his intention to make spaces in public for discussing painful losses of close family members. This is, indeed, a trope of contemporary art, in particular of many relational practices, however, I did not find Grey’s work to be successful in this effort.
Posted by Joshua Schwebel on September 17th, 2013
Sara French’s performance will take place over the course of three days. On each day she will be performing in a different location: behind Latitude, then in front of the gallery, and finally before the Alberta Legislature. Unfortunately, I am only able to see the first two performances. The work will be an unfolding examination of a persona in public space, interpreting the life of Greek Cynic and philosopher, Diogenes.
Since the history of philosophy is not my area of expertise, I can only vaguely remember the reason why Diogenes is considered important to people who care about Ancient Greece. I do recall that the Cynics repudiated wealth, and chose to live a life with as few possessions as possible. If I work my memory a bit more, I believe that there is a relationship between the paucity of material belongings and the ability to achieve a true lived experience of philosophy, literally in Greek, a love of wisdom. Beyond this, I am at a loss.
Sara’s previous work has also been the embodiment of a character or persona: a security guard named Norman. Figuring out the daily life, physicality, and projects of Norman was a two-year pursuit for Sara. Norman was fictional, made up, yet Sara identified with him as part of herself. Diogenes, however, is a new work, emerging from a true, historical figure. The interplay between historical reference and imaginary or fictional hypothesis, and how freely Sara plays between the two will have a determining factor on the final form of the impersonation. At this point, however, we are seeing the work performed for the first time, Sara’s first experience as Diogenes.
Having not made Norman’s acquaintance, I can only guess at what an encounter with that performance would have been like, and to compare between Norman and Diogenes can only achieve so much. However, Diogenes is an obscure reference for a performance that addresses a general public. To my eyes, Sara appears to be a cross between a muppet, and perhaps some sort of Frosh dare. She is wearing a beige bedsheet belted around the waist, carries a wooden walking stick, and odd flesh-coloured ankle-socks. The strangest element is a rubber mask complete with a long, white beard. This covers her head and face entirely. Her eyes recede into black raisin-y holes, which seem quite animated, although perhaps that’s my imagination. Diogenes is bald with a ring of white hair. The mask ties behind her head, with an obvious white cotton fastener that she has not concealed. The theatricality of this mask is odd, since it is both ridiculous and remarkably life-like at the same time.
In the first performance we gather behind Latitude, sitting out over the loading dock. It is a beautiful sunny afternoon. Diogenes approaches stooped over, walking slowly backwards down the alley. A minivan attempts to pass her, and she and the driver exchange some words, they are too far away from me to decipher, but it seems that the driver has handed over something to Diogenes, and then he continues through the laneway. Having finally shuffled into the centre of the gathering, Diogenes addresses us, with a scripted epithet about the shame we should feel for riches that are not necessary for the enjoyment of life. He lies down on the pavement and begins to mime what we can perceive to be masturbation, but not for very long or in a particularly credible or offensive way. He then climbs into a nearby dumpster, throws out a bag of doughnuts and climbs out. He offers these to audience members, but drops them on the road at the point at which someone might grasp one. The implied shame, at refusing perfectly good food that has touched the ground makes people uncomfortable, as does the theatricality of the character, and the unprompted excerpts that are recited without any specific external motivation.
The first day’s performance seems stiff, scripted and overly theatrical. Her entrances and exits exacerbate this reading, since the work begins and ends in an arbitrary manner. The performance struggles with what to do, how to be faithful to Diogenes. This seems extraneous, since Diogenes is not a common reference: he is not a character to whom Sara must be as faithful as she is attempting, since none of us have the knowledge to evaluate her emulation save the performer herself.
In the discussion after this encounter we had asked Sara why she was attached to this character, why Diogenes? She defended her choice, grounding it in an intuition that this man had been the first performance artist. He chose to forgo possessions, to harangue passers-by for their attachment to worldly things, to teach by way of negative examples, to live by his principles, to enact his life as a concept. Yet by performing Diogenes, by entering and exiting his life, what was Sara doing? While Norman was an expression of some aspect of Sara, since Sara had full license to compose all aspects of his life, it felt instead like Sara was being far too faithful with Diogenes, too timid to depart from what she had researched.
The next day we saw a different and more mature engagement with the conditions of the work. Here Sara explored stillness, movement, and tableaux. She rested in garbage containers, dragging a large plastic receptacle along the street, positioning it in the sun, crawling inside, and waiting. As the sun caught her figure, she cast a strange and beautiful dichotomy: at once a figure in a trash can and a puppet, both human and representation. This slower situation of her character allowed the public more time to encounter the work. Rather than a staged performance, what Sara created in being more still became a space for uncertainty, a more visual yet less predicted and thus less predictable situation. For me the potential for this figure is in the juxtaposition between odd theatricality and real life. The mask gives her permission to interact with real life outside of conventional etiquette, and this was something with which she became more confident in this second performance.
Unfortunately I was unable to witness the third iteration of Diogenes, but I have a feeling that this was only the beginning of a work that may take years to develop.
Posted by Joshua Schwebel on September 16th, 2013
I want to take this post to talk about another, more tender point at which we are encountering vulnerability this festival.
This rawness comes up by way of discussing artworks that are new to the artists, works that they are not so sure about. The vulnerability of workshopping a new piece emerges in trying something we aren’t comfortable with or certain of. Enacting a work that is still new comes with taking a huge risk, and wagering with the personal demons of failure. As artists we have to walk a fine line between experimentation and editing: continuously questioning, evaluating, and modifying our production. Yet we all expend so much energy before committing to an idea, wondering if it is “good enough”.
These stipulations of success and failure run deep within our conceptions of what it means to be an artist. I cannot count the number of times I have described a work as a failure, only to be admonished, as though there could be no such thing in art, or as though any failure could be recuperated within the sphere of art back into the work. Of course failure and its deconstruction has been appropriated back into art, but that sidesteps the vulnerability of feeling dissatisfied with what we are actually doing, or what we have done. The failure of a work seems to be something an artist can talk about only as a point on a journey back to the work itself. Yet as spectators we talk about a work’s failure constantly. We manifest reasons to exclude or include artists from those we respect based on the impact of their work. This disparity between feeling the failure of a work as the author and judging the failure of a work as a spectator, imposes on the artist a paranoia and an unwillingness to try new things or to take risks.
Being a ‘professional’, means engaging in some way or another with a hierarchy of other artists, and feeling subject to the social pressures of inclusion or exclusion. Marginalization intersects with success at so many unacknowledged intervals, joining personal, social, and professional spheres in a fragile meshwork we call an “art career”. The degree to which social success influences one’s professional success (the importance of reference letters, or networking), and the intertwining of financial privilege with social privilege, are ways in which privilege influences career success. Yet because art upholds an ambivalent definition of competition and success, but cannot turn an eye inward to examine how we define failure, as individual artists, we each carry that secret fear of failure deep within ourselves. We each have our own way of defining failure – how a work can fail, and how we as artists can fail.
I often think about the most famous artists, making work that I consider derivative and bad. Their career success has made it impossible for them to edit, develop, or push their work beyond what they already recognize as success, so at some point that vulnerability of taking risks was abandoned for the more immediate gratification of producing more of what is already known to work.
All of this vulnerability, and how seriously we take ourselves, comes into play in producing a new work. There is a lot of bravery in showing people something bad, and in accepting criticism. The point at which a work is a failure, and how we cope with that failure, the point at which we internalize our feelings about our work and can’t find a way to separate work from self, these are all often relegated to personal secrets that we do not feel supported enough or trusting enough to discuss. There is a tight relationship between failure and vulnerability, between work that is not achieving its goal and the ego of the artist who is responsible for the piece.
In the opportunity afforded by Visualeyez to workshop pieces, to try things out and see what happens, and then discuss these uncertain, raw works with a group of peers who are sincerely engaged with not just the work, but the artist making the work, is highly unusual in a professional context. We are usually so competitive with our peers, so untrusting, that we can only show a work that we feel entirely certain of. At what point is a new project ‘safe’ to show other people? The judgement of others can be harsh and dismissive. The terminology of success and failure comes up constantly, remorselessly, even when it is not the end-point or goal of a work of art.
As artists we need to trust ourselves, to feel confident in order to manifest work that is unthought to us. How do we, as a community of artists and a wider community of those who want to access emerging art, approach each others’ work, encourage or discourage trust, and in doing so, encourage or discourage the unthought from emerging?
Posted by Adam on September 14th, 2013
The festival ends Sunday with our last patio party of the year, In Your Face, where we’ll be welcoming a great group of market vendors and food trucks to come join the festivities. Make sure you come by!
Find more information on the Celebrations page.
Posted by Adam on September 14th, 2013
Sara French photographed by Danielle Siemens.Next Page »