Posted on November 4th, 2016
It is a blustery weekday afternoon shortly after lunch-hour in downtown Edmonton. Golden autumn sunlight is casting sheathes of warmth along the upper reaches of brick, concrete, and glass office towers. Alexandria Inkster – wearing white slip-on sneakers, white jeans, and a white cable-knit sweater – makes her way eastward along the north-side of Jasper Avenue like a striking, ghostly mime (with clear and serious purpose). She is carrying a heavy pile of white paper under one arm, and a wooden folding tv-table under the other. To her right, (handler/ photographer/ volunteer) Alice carries a matching set of folding chairs, and a camera around her neck.
The two of them pause just to the left of the 102nd Street bus-stop, unfolding the table and chairs like they are setting up an easel for a day’s worth of land(urban)scape painting. Inkster arranges the newsprint-sized stack of paper on the tv-table and places a large rock on top to prevent the already fanning sheets from blowing off into the street. She chooses one of the seats for herself and sits tall, upright, deliberate: unflinching, but relaxed. She stares straight ahead – part-expectant, part-lonely, part-stoic, part-anticipatory, part-meditative – but also open. Tucked ever-so-slightly into the alcove where the faded brick of the CIBC building juts out from the shiny granite façade of Commerce Place, Inkster is both on-the-street, and in her own space. The wooden chairs, the table, and Inkskter’s white clothing are framed by their own forms, looking and feeling like a Robert Rauschenberg White Painting (1951), while behaving something like a decontextualized White Cube.
A decade after they were made, composer John Cage described the White Paintings as “airports for lights, shadows, and particles…receptive surfaces that respond to the world around them.” In a similar way, Inkster – with her table, chairs, and paper – gives us, me, you, and the people walking-by a landing-pad for all of the quotidian things, thoughts, and seeings that we are carrying with us down the street that day. I approach the table and Inkster asks me if I would like to join her for “a wordless conversation?” I say I would and take a seat on the vacant folding chair across the table from her. She explains the parameters of what seems almost like a pensive game: “To have a wordless conversation we need to maintain eye contact without speaking – our communication will be through our eyes. If we break eye contact, the conversation stops, but we always have the opportunity to re-establish eye contact.”
Although I have been looking straight at her eyes since she first mentioned “eye contact”, at some inexplicably defined point we have initiated eye contact in a more decidedly inaugural way and, simply by non-verbal consensus, I know that our conversation has started.
The content of the White Paintings “lies in the shifts in attention they require from the viewer, asking us to slow down, watch closely over time, and inspect their mute painted surfaces for subtle shifts in color, light, and texture.” So too does this wordless conversation held via eye contact depend upon my own ability to contemplate on the moment itself. Given the theme of the week, I am trying to meditate on the idea of ‘kindness’ – I want to send warm, inviting, happy energy to Inkster. I have what I think is an ever-so-slight smile on my lips, and think about what it means to smile in/ with my eyes.
Inkster herself has written that kindness: “is a gift, an offering of sorts…a gentle touch, which may or may not be registered, accepted, or reciprocated, but is offered nonetheless…an invitation to form connections with the world one inhabits.” So I think about how I am connecting to this stranger in a strange situation. At one point, a wave of sadness, or melancholia, passes over me – maybe that would happen in any performance, or circumstance, where human connection is the forefront of the experience. But I try to conceal it from Inkster as quickly as possible. I am also drifting back-and-forth between determining what messages and affectations the eyes in front of me are holding, and what uncategorized thoughts of my own are randomly interfering with the concentration required to truly decipher those messages and affectations.
I can only see it peripherally, but I know the pile of paper is there, and I know Inkster is doing something that resembles folding with a sheet of it during our conversation. I am aware of the paper, aware that her gestures with the paper seem repetitive, aware of the labour required by Inkster to fold the paper. As the performance goes on, I am mindful that it is becoming more and more difficult for her to fold the paper as its’ thickness increases. I can feel it billowing up onto my arms in the wind and I rest my hands on it to help keep it from blowing around. But, at the same time, I am resisting the urge to notice the paper. I am trying to not to contemplate anything but holding eye contact (and staying ‘kind’).
As one reviewer described, Marina Abramović’s well-known performance of The Artist is Present (2010) at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City was “largely about experience in time. Abramović’s goal was, essentially, to remain present, to remain ‘in the present’ for the approximately 731 hours and 30 minutes that the performance lasted. The work invited audience members to both witness and join in this present. A teenage visitor to the show was reported as observing of those who sat with Abramović in the work, ‘I think they lose all perception of time when they get up there.’ ” But sitting in Inkster’s piece, I am actually more aware of time – aware of holding a gaze for a particular duration of time and wondering how long I can hold this eye contact. I think it is Inkster’s act of paper folding, in particular, that is grounding me in time, and keeping me on the street with her. Her repetitive gestures act like a metronome that ground us in the present of where we are and what we are doing. Where the perception of time, or even the perception of present-ness, might be the signature context of The Artist is Present (especially given it’s physical relation to the rest of the exhibition it is situated in, that is; Abramović’s retrospective), We are in the folds is about perception itself. Inkster’s modus operandi, here, is to “make art to precipitate an awareness of different ways of perceiving, and actively participating within, our shared and overlapping lifeworlds.”
However, since We are in the folds is not completely stationary (Inkster with her table, chairs, and paper literally move – west down Jasper Avenue – as the day progresses), there is also something unfixed and unspecific about it. Inkster’s path is not random, and the locations (and the spaces they create) less defined, less significant to her action than that of Abramović sitting in the centre of an exhibition space at the MoMA. Inkster’s direction is as controlled and aesthetically minimal as the rest of her performance. She moves west down Jasper Avenue in a straight line, and she creates a space with every new stop along the way (an architecturally-absent, momentary gallery site).
As the day progresses, Inkster also experiments with changing the parameters of some of her wordless conversations. At times, audience members participate with her in the folding. Inkster taking the lead and the viewer simultaneously mimicking her actions while trying not to break eye contact: starting at opposite ends of the sheet, both make a one-inch fold, press the crease, flip the whole sheet over, and repeat until the paper has become a pressed-spiral cube. In this iteration, the conversation is even more like a game, and the dialogue held less in the visual than in the act of folding itself.
At the end of each performance, Inkster gives the participant the folded sheet of paper held together with a rubber band. It becomes a sculptural record/remnant of an exchange. Our conversation(s) to be left in the folds of the pleated cube, “or to open up to the air to breathe.”
- John Cage as referenced by San Francisco Museum of Modern Art online: https://www.sfmoma.org/artwork/98.308.A-C ↑
- San Francisco Museum of Modern Art online, as above. ↑
- Alexandria Inkster, We are in the folds artist statement: http://www.visualeyez.org/festival-2016/artists/alexandria-inkster/, September 2016. ↑
- Abigail Levine, “Marina Abramović’s Time: The Artist is Present at the Museum of Modern Art”, Hemispheric Institute, online, 2010. ↑
- Inkster. ↑
- Inkster. ↑