Miles of Blog posts!

Posted on October 3rd, 2010

During Visualeyez, it was very important to me in my role as festival animator to experience all of the art as fully and wholly as I could; to not hold back or be shy in participating. Though I think I am often inclined, like all of us from time to time, to hang back and watch the bravest souls take the first big leaps, I was determined to be that brave soul every day during the festival.

So when it came to Miles of Aisles, a performative tour through a local grocery store produced by caribou X crossing (Beau Coleman, Matthew Skopyk and Melissa Thingelstad), I was in there like a dirty shirt. I downloaded the tours onto my iPod, which I had never used for audio or video playback before. I was really keen to take in what the project’s website describes as “an artist-led performance walk through Sobeys Urban Fresh (Jasper Ave & 104th St.) that explores the idea of ‘food as portal’.” This was going to be very untraditional theatre (even for Edmonton audiences who are fortunate to be blessed with some pretty amazing experimental theatre), but part of a tradition that’s growing in experimental theatre and performance art scenes around the world.

- - Jennifer Mesch participating in Miles of Aisles. - -

The project sounded interesting enough in its own right, but I was excited about Miles of Aisles partly because it reminded me of a performance work I never got to see when I was in Finland last year for ANTI Festival, a project called Wondermart presented by Rotozaza. Rotozaza’s thing is that they’ve invented a “new genre” of performance that they call Autoteatro – live art that is performed by the audience for themselves (and each other). In Autoteatro, there is not meant to be an audience outside of the performer; as the troupe describes: “the different tracks are synchronised and pre-recorded, meaning the participants are alone with each other during the experience, with no human input beyond someone handing them the headphones or sometimes pressing ‘play’. An Autoteatro work is a ‘trigger’ for a subsequently self-generating performance.”

Though Rotozaza claim to have invented this kind of performative activity, there are now other troupes and collectives working in similar types of audience-generated performance as well as not-so-similar choreographed public events. Improv Everywhere has made a whole career out of massive participatory happenings, for example. There are also genres of performance based in the theatre tradition but which take place onsite or over a walking tour, such as promenade theatre and site-specific theatre.

Of course, quasi-narrative work like Miles of Aisles also brings to mind the work of Janet Cardiff (and partner George Bures-Miller who sometimes collaborates with Cardiff on the audio tours). Rather than positioning themselves as “organizers” or “producers” of the work and the audience as the “performer,” Cardiff (and Bures-Miller) retain the role of the artist(s) in their works, and the audio tour is the unique venue for the artistic experience had by the audience. (The notion of ‘performance’ is of lesser concern to these artists.)

Cardiff has claimed to have invented the genre of the walking audio tour as art, which “use(s) the narrative and technical language of film noir to create lush, suspenseful sound… works.” Her particular tour style relies on the uncanny sensation created when overlapping the real experience of a space with a prerecorded reality of that same space.

Miles of Aisles captures some of that uncanny sensation, especially when it presents a “video path” for participants to follow; more than one of my fellow audience members noted how strange it felt to try to move out of the way of a person in the aisle only to realize that the person was on the screen of their iPod and was not actually standing in the aisle they were trying to negotiate. The ‘uncanny’ audio elements are less amazing in this work than in Cardiff’s; to be sure, Cardiff and Bures-Miller have spent their careers developing and capitalizing on complex audio-capturing and playback techniques designed specifically to generate the sensation of real life. (The audio elements of Miles of Aisles are great, by the way – the recording is clear and easy to listen to, and the sound effects are perfectly adept.)

Miles of Aisles also seems more aligned with Cardiff’s work than Rotozaza’s in its adherence to a narrative structure; caribou X crossing’s project for Visualeyez seems more concerned with the creation of a story that is being told to you inside a grocery store, and less concerned with the store itself, or what the audience is doing inside it. I’m not sure that the site or the audiences’ actions should be of greater interest to the artists than the story or the experience of it, I’m just interested to see what elements of the encounter have been privileged in this work and how that affects the audiences’ experience of it. But it does raise an interesting question about the structure of Miles of Aisles, as intended by the artists – is the audience the performer, or are the recorded artists the performers?

The project description does say that the artists are exploring the idea of ‘food as portal’ and that they want us to “to discover where (we) might be transported by food.” So if I approach this performance with the assumption that the grocery store and everything inside it is the portal – the mode of delivery, ie the movie screen – and NOT so much the venue of the performance – ie the stage – then I’m not the actor, but the audience, and the store/the food is transporting me to a place inside my head where the action is taking place. (Hmm. This line of thought merits further reflection…)

SPOILER ALERT

I want to describe my experience for those of you who have not and will not be able to do the Miles of Aisles tour, but since the files are still downloadable, and since the store is still there, and that’s really all you need to be able to participate (plus a portable media-enabled device and, well, the ability to get to the Sobeys on Jasper Avenue in Edmonton), its not too late! For those of you who still want to participate in Miles of Aisles, go HERE instead of reading on.

But wait!

Before you go, I just want to tell you that I highly recommend taking a friend with you, one who has their own media device, who can play the other role (there are 2 sides to the story). If you can’t bring a friend, at least go prepared to do it twice, so you can play both parts. Or go with a friend AND do it twice! Then come back here, finish reading this post, and let us know how it went!  (It’s bound to be a little glitchier for you than it was during the festival; no grocery store layout or selection of produce stays static for long, and things are going to get moved around the more time elapses between the festival and when you do the tour. I did the tour one last time myself on the day I left town, several days after the festival ended – more on that later in this post – suffice it to say things were already a little harder to navigate.

For everyone that wants to read about my experience with the work, read on!

Starting at the park on 104th Street beside the grocery store, the first track of the tour basically just got me oriented to the project and the technology, using the walk to the front door to get me into the zone of the piece and let me gather myself together for the experience.

The second track directed me into the store, getting me to take stock of my surroundings. Unlike the average grocery store experience, which from what I’ve read is designed to keep you moving at a steady pace (but covering as much ground and passing by as many products as possible), Miles of Aisles asked me to slow down, to linger in one spot and to consider the produce thoughtfully. For the first while, it felt like I was lingering too long, on the pears and the peppers especially. I felt less conspicuous for wearing headphones and more conspicuous for having smelled half a dozen different pears (for the record, the pears didn’t smell like much to me, and I was really trying.)

Once into the store and fingering the produce, the story began in earnest. It is about 2 women that meet in the Sobey’s café. The tale is actually a pretty conventional lesbian love story (played out for the audience over the course of an unconventional stroll through a grocery store – though not, for the most part, taking place IN a grocery store). As you can imagine, without expecting the audience to loiter inside the store for a couple of hours, the artists must have had a hard time writing the story so that it would hold people’s attention but still make sense, playing out from beginning to end in around 20 minutes. The story jumped from stage to stage in the relationship – first meeting, in the fruit section. Things heating up – at the pepper display.

By the time I got to the lobster tank, I think I’d gotten into the swing of things, and was better prepared to move slowly and thoughtfully, so I looked less lost and more absorbed in careful consideration. On my first tour, I picked up a basket, and took the time to place things I actually wanted to buy in it. I thought it would look better for the project if staff were to take note of what I was doing – it’s important to me to be a positive ambassador for the arts, and I wanted  Sobeys to know that the people coming in for the festival were also willing to spend their money there, too!

Of course, I was also trying to look inconspicuous. Better that I not be noticed at all; I could always find a manager at the end of my experience and thank them for allowing the artists to use their store for this project.

The story as it started to unfold at the pears made the grocery-store-ness of it seem sort of irrelevant – in a good way. I prepared to sink into the story along with its attendant smells, sights and experiences without thinking too much about how it all worked together. The next stop at the peppers seemed a little overwrought, the heat of a relationship being compared to the heat of a pepper. I literally compared the two in my head, as I was encouraged to do by the voice in my ears, thinking that it’s actually not a very good analogy at all. Why do we use that metaphor? Love, lust and passion as hot and spicy sounds good at first blush, but when you’re holding a habanero in your hand and being asked to think about what it would taste like on the tip of your tongue, well, that just didn’t seem really sexy to me at all, or passionate in pretty much any way.

Ditto the lobster tank and the story’s allusions to “diving deeper” into the relationship. At this point I decided to try to think less literally about the directions, and to drink the whole project in more experientially, as I had started to do at the beginning.

The story moved so fast; by the time I had walked from the front doors to the back wall (a straight line with only 2 detours, the pears and the peppers), Anne and Julia had met, become lovers, moved in together and were going to each others’ families homes for the holidays. The grocery store was starting to act as a grounding factor, for better or worse – rather than feeling personally transported through time, I felt that the time is what was being moved – the artificiality of the story was made clear through the fact that time had to be sped up to get me through the story in the time it would take to get me through the store.

The next few tracks were less frustrating, sending me on longer searches for different sections of the store, giving me a couple of “video paths” to follow which, as I mentioned earlier, provided a frisson of uncanny weirdness that helped marry the story to the experience again. The story progressed, the action rose – and then sent me back to the front of the store to find a horned melon, a metaphor for the first signs of trouble in the relationship, those little things that are just tiny nagging details at first but which start to really annoy after a while. By this time I was on my second round of the grocery store, and was feeling quite at home. I think this is one element of the project that the artists could really exploit; that after only a short time, (because most stores are designed to make us feel comfortable anyway), what we are being asked to do by the project could slowly escalate. I mean, Miles of Aisles does this (as you’ll see), but I think it’s one aspect that could be explored in greater depth.

The story then took me to the meat – this is when I noticed the audio becoming quite its own experience; connected sort of to the story but sort of the store itself, in a way that added to the experience. At first, the ambient sounds were related to either the grocery store (sounds of ringing registers, for example) or to the story (music, conversation), but by this point in the story there was a swelling buzzing fly sound which, come to think of it, must have started at the horned melon, and which was distinctly evocative of rotting flesh.  Rather than making me see or experience the products in the store differently, however, it helped again reconnect me to the story by reminding me that being in the store was part of the story I was listening to.

Seriously, though – SPOILER ALERT! If you don’t want to know too much more before downloading and taking the tour, now’s really the time to stop reading and go HERE.

The next couple of stops were a bit jarring, in part for their really literal instructions (the tension is rising and about to explode – go shake a bottle of pop as hard as you can! The women are breaking up and one is moving out – go to the cleaning supplies!) But it was also jarring because the mise-en-scene also suddenly shifted from fresh produce and boutique grocer to soda pop, frozen food and chemical cleaners. Clearly, the mood of the story had shifted, but I felt shaken out of the story altogether.

Luckily, that abrupt changed shifted right back and I was thrown back into the story, feeling as stunned as I’m sure the artists actually intended. The tour then took me into the café (I had to leave my basket at the entrance to the café, feeling guilty and sort of stupid for trying to shop while experiencing the art) where I was directed to press my hands and face against the glass, becoming a real spectacle in the store now, before quickly exiting the store and being left alone on the sidewalk, performance over, with no further direction.

I have to say, I felt completely abandoned, but in the best possible way. I was left with unanswered questions, nagging emotions, and, I slowly realized, the feeling that I had become the character in the story.  Wow. I only wish that that could have happened earlier in the tour; it was by far the best part of the project, for me.

The second time I took the tour was on the day caribou X crossing led a group tour. I had originally thought that they planned to perform it live and that the experience would be hugely different, but instead the artists were simply guiding the participants through the same media-device-assisted tour I had already taken. I was just as keen to participate, knowing that the experience I had doing the tour alone would be very different from doing it in a store filled with others also participating. Plus, we were encouraged to select partners (Jennifer Mesch and I paired up) so that we could each do one half of the story. I convinced her to play Anne so that I could do Julia, the one I hadn’t done yet. At that point I had no idea how similar or different each of the stories were.

I thought we were all going to be released into the store at once. That would have been a terrible idea, since we all would have been clumped up right at the entrance by the pears for what would have seemed like forever. The artists took the time to space out the start of each pair of participants so that we were spread out throughout the store (watching the participants would have been a really great experience on its own.) While Jenn and I waited, I thought about what this project, or one like it, would be like if there were roles for many participants who could all start at the same time, but be directed to various parts of the store, encountering each other in passing over the course of the tour. I think this is probably what would have happened in Rotozaza’s Wondermart, though I know their work could be experienced solo, too. I wished I would have had time to have seen that work, for comparison.

Finally Jenn and I were sent in to the store. It became apparent quite quickly that the Julia tour was going to be different from the Anne tour in only the subtlest ways. I paid less attention to the story this time, and more attention to those around me who were experiencing the work for the first time, especially Jenn, who was my “partner” in this project and who would become my lover as the story evolved and we became the characters in it.

Nothing much new grabbed my attention, besides the other participants in the store and the shoppers watching us. As I stood in the soda aisle having just shaken a bottle of pop, person after person stepped up, shook a 2-litre bottle of pop vigorously, set it down, stood back and silently watched as the next person grabbed a bottle. Not very salient to the story, but definitely a highlight of the tour!

But then, as we moved to the cleaning aisle, there was a huge shift. The stories up to this point had been either identical (at times) or nearly so, but at this moment, as the women were splitting up, the stories became split – told from clearly different points of view. I realized then, though I hadn’t before, that Anne’s version had been cold and detached; having gone on that tour first, (especially considering I first thought the stories were quite identical,)  Julia’s version of the story probably seemed much more emotional to me now than it would to people doing Julia’s tour as their first. At least, I seemed to be the only person in the cleaning aisle who was tearing up.

And then, the biggest shock of all! Up to then, Jenn and I had been very nearby to each other. Because there was so much dead air at the end of each track, allowing each participant the time needed to get from one station to another, we sometimes walked to the next station together, but more often ended up there at slightly different times. Once or twice I headed straight for the next track as soon as the beep signaled that the previous one was over. Usually though, because I’d been on the tour before and I didn’t want Jenn to feel like she was just following me, I let her lead the way. Somehow, she got ahead of me at the cleaning aisle, and was long gone by the time I got the tears out of my eyes and was ready to move on. But the next track was completely different from the one I had experienced on the Anne tour. Instead of heading for the café, I was directed to linger at the antipasti island, walking a full circle around it and even sneaking an olive! By the time I was led into the café where I expected to see Jenn pressed up against the glass, she was long gone. Leaving the store in a panic as directed, my real panic was less due to thinking I had seen her (as the story suggests) and more because she WASN’T there!

It was still pretty cool.

The ending to the tour this time around was even better than the last, made better by the fact that I had gone with a partner. I wished even more this time that more of the tour had been like the ending. And maybe next time, the tours would be synched up in such a way that the 2 participants would have connected perfectly… and that there would be more instances of this kind of connection throughout the tour.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. That was the kind of feedback the artists got later that evening at their feedback session, which offered lots of suggestions for how to improve the work, from the participants and artists who took the tour. On first blush, the feedback session seemed quite critical in that everyone seemed to have ideas for making the performance better next time. However, I think it demonstrated the excitement that participants had for what the project could become, based on the adventure it already is.

- - Project participants offer their thoughts during the feedback session. - -

Jennifer Mesch, by the way, told us afterwards that one of her favorite parts of the projects was also the feeling of abandonment she felt at the end of the project when she expected me to be nearby as I had been throughout the whole tour, but I wasn’t. Which made me feel pretty awesome, like we’d shared a really intimate experience together, even though we hardly made eye contact and certainly never exchanged words the whole time. I believe that this is where the potential for this work really lies, and I do hope the artists explore it more.

Before I left town I wanted to do the tour one more time, by myself. Partly to refresh my memory after all the other great projects I’d seen over the course of the week, I also wanted to see how the Julia story would be different when I went on my own again. But more importantly, I was curious to know – now that the festival was over, would I allow myself to be transgressive outside of that protective festival context? I mean, I did absolutely everything else asked of me in this festival, including eat a banana; would I do this performative audio tour fully when the festival was over, or was it the festival that gave me agency? I guess that’s why I decided to redo the Julia tour; the whole olive-stealing thing  – I didn’t know if I would do it again when I knew it really wasn’t allowed.

Funnily enough, when I got to that part of the tour, the antipasti/olive island had been blockaded by displays so that you couldn’t walk a circle around it without walking down and around a whole other aisle. It definitely made me too self-conscious to take an olive; by design, I’m sure! Though the caribou X crossing artists had assumed the store staff (by the date of the group tour) hadn’t taken the tour, I’m sure the spectacle of us all on that day must have piqued SOMEONE’s curiosity. They couldn’t very much put the bottles of pop out of reach, but they did exercise as much power over the situation as they could – by making it impossible to walk around the antipasti island.

It seems like that’s kind of par for the course when working with chains and big businesses, though; artists don’t want to align themselves with the corporate entity if it means compromising their goals which may run counter to the desires of the corporation – and corporations don’t want to be associated with any “funny business” that might confuse or upset paying customers or head office. Of course, the party line is always that it can’t benefit them so they have no reason to do it, but in the art world (and those of us in businesses with a history of community partnerships) we all know the incredible goodwill that can be generated by participating in a project like this, and we know that artists and art audiences are very loyal to their supporters. It can work out great for all parties when everyone works together: there doesn’t necessarily have to be a compromise, though often the artists have to fudge the truth a bit to get their foot in the door. The Montreal-based art collective ATSA (action terroriste socialement acceptable), for example, put on their first Etat d’urgence (State of Emergency) festival 11 years ago, never expecting that it could become an annual event. In meetings with the Canadian Armed Forces, negotiating for them to install barracks for the event, a festival for homeless people, they neglected to tell the army the name of their collective, knowing the project would never fly if the army were asked to support a “terrorist” organization. The event generated so much positive media for the army that, even after the shock of discovering the nature of the artists’ ongoing project, and given the unlikely partnership between artist-activists and army, they have come back year after year to provide temporary housing for the homeless over the duration of the festival.

But I digress.

After going on the tour three times, and discovering the little differences and subtle nuances each time, I think Miles of Aisles is like a favorite book. There’s an inherent increased self-consciousness each time you do the tour, finding yourself performing exactly the same gestures over and over,  as though the risk of being caught is higher each time. Or maybe, like a favorite book, it just can’t be experienced the same way as the first time you read it, and when you re-read it it’s to discover something new, or to see how it’s changed because you understand the story differently once you already know the story. I mean, I’ve done the tour three times and I’ve picked it apart, examined it from all angles, and I still find myself wondering what would happen if I took my iPod to my local Sobey’s and tried to do the tour there. How would it translate if I add my own element of randomness, a new store in a new city?

The very best part about this project, and the part that I really hope the artists continue to exploit in whatever projects come next, is that they engage our sense of curiosity; they give us permission – and a good cover story, in case we get caught – to play.

- - Matthew Skopyk (left) and Melissa Thingelstad (right) gather feedback while Beau Coleman (centre) carves another horned melon. - -