Posted 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.