I see You, I Recognize You: Linda Rae Dornan, Woven Woven Lost and Found

Posted on December 16th, 2016

By Daniel Walker

At last year’s Visualeyez festival, the students of University of Alberta professor Natalie Loveless’s Fall 2016 seminar course “Ephemerality and Sustainability in Contemporary Art” (ArtH 456/556) responded to performances at the festival.

Part One: Walks

As we are bundling up for our first of two walks, Linda Dornan tells me that she tries to get outside as often as she can. After all, an attunement to one’s surroundings, just like kindness, is something that is practiced; constantly developed. We are not looking for anything in particular, she tells us as we walk: what we encounter will be left up to chance, and as objects speak to us they will be collected.

On our walk, we chat about our daily lives, academic interests, and hobbies. We talk about Dornan’s artistic practice as something heavily process-oriented, and when the topic turns to sustainability and climate change, Dornan emphasizes the role of education as vital to any movement. Education, and more importantly, collaboration at all levels are what matter. Linda walks with a quiet focus, occasionally dropping out of step when she spots a color she likes in the grass, or a stray shoe in an alleyway.

Dornan’s re-attunement to her surroundings displays a particular kindness to objects normally overlooked and discarded. More than this, these are objects typically seen as a burden, and unpleasant to look at. As I walk with Linda, paying attention to the fascination with which she discovers lost objects, I am struck by the care that she demonstrates, treating these materials as friends and collaborators. Looking for the refuse of city life, picking things up that nobody wants, suggests the generative value of orienting oneself differently to the world; looking at our surroundings differently. An ecological derive, I can only anticipate our next walk together.

The day arrives for our next walk.

“Today we are going to loiter with intent,” says Dornan, embarking on her guided tour with gallery participants. We are practicing the art of slow-looking as we scour the backstreets of downtown Edmonton, in search of lost things. Citing the important work of play, Dornan suggests that we will be experimenting with play for an hour or so, in order to look at our city in a different way. A way that re-orients us towards kindness: kindness to ourselves and each other, and, importantly, kindness to the city around us. It is, she tells us, in rescuing and transforming found objects that we re-attune ourselves to micro-acts of care.

On this walk, Dornan is as much a participant as a leader, scouring the streets for objects, all-the-while cherishing the work of those involved. A boy rushes to her after finding a metal pipe. I find another green piece of metal. Two other participants whisper excitedly over their newest find: an ambiguous, green rubber object. I can’t help but think of neighborhood cleanup programs, where individuals can “adopt a block,” and care for its cleanliness. However similar in structure, on this walk we are doing something very different in meaning. We are not adopting a block to rid it of unsightly waste, but are re-orienting ourselves to notice what we are normally so quick to ignore or jettison. In this performance-action, we are explorers, revising our relationship to the objects in our daily lives, finding value in the discarded. We are treating litter with love.

Part Two: Performance

We are in an empty room. Linda suggests we move as close to the front of the room as possible. She exits and re-enters, humming, carrying a large teal bin containing the objects found outside. She is holding an ambiguous object in her mouth; a kind focus attunes her, and us, to her actions in the space. She places the object (a whistle?) onto a napkin on the floor, and reaches into her supply box, pulling out the green metal pipe I had found yesterday. Only now, the pipe forms part of a dowsing rod, along with a string, broken pencils, and metal disks. Recycling at its best. The rod guides Linda around the center of the room. She continues to sing. The rod speaks to her, and she hurries to the ground, writing on the concrete:

NO FIXED BOUNDARIES.

As Dornan continues to blur the boundaries between her and the objects, she returns to her box, pulling out another pipe, this one picked up by a child on the second walk. It is wrapped in metal wire. Dornan enters into a conversation with the shiny object. She runs her hand along it, gently caressing the space between her and the object before placing it on the ground. She performs with the attunement of a Theremin, her sounds changing with the placement of her hands: a speaker reacting with reverberation to a microphone placed too close. “Speak”: she calls out to her objects. Again, the dowsing rod guides her. She stops and writes another word on the floor:

WHIMSY.

“What do you do when your fiscal supports break? Slow down, clean yourself up.” Dornan picks up a broken ski pole from her box. “Found between two concrete pillars, its stability compromised, its purpose now flexible, but still functional.” As Dornan begins to sweep the floor with the frayed, broken edge of the ski pole, my mind circles around this statement: It’s purpose now flexible. Dornan puts down the broom and takes another object out of the box. She is now performing with a necklace, and enacts a ceremony of sound. She then pulls out a pair of handcrafted glasses: “to see, low and behold, perceive, observe, discern, understand, know; viewing: to take note of”.

I SEE YOU, I RECOGNIZE YOU.

The dowsing rod is leading Dornan again. This time, she kneels and writes:

POSSIBILITIES

A basket piece becomes an oculus atop a pyramid, with a small nest attached below. Patterns are forming, in action and speech, as Dornan revisits every object she has interacted with. Again, she asks the dowsing rod where to write:

GREETINGS LOVE.

The pattern continues. “Moccasin: lost and found – one good shoe, looking for contact; looking for mate, love in all the wrong places. We’re going to make you happier. Looking for love in all the wrong places.” Dornan attaches a pink ribbon. It begins blinking light. “We’re going to make you happier. Party time.” Back to the dowsing rod:

THE TEXTURE OF NOW.

“Flattened, forgotten, fragile, lost.” Dornan is now introducing us to a flattened piece of metal. “Recuperated and loved.” She responds to the objects, letting them guide her every move and sound. It is a true collaboration, a discovery of things that have been lost for a while.

I SEE YOU. SPEAK.

HEAR SEE LISTEN TOUCH SENSE OPEN.

Dornan places her final item on top of her head: her crown, assembled from a neck pillow and a scrap of metal, transformed kindly into jewels. Plastic confetti, assembled from colored straws, is thrown into the air. A celebration. Party time. As it falls, so do her crown and glasses, to join her found family, and her audience applauds.

I leave the gallery after the performance has ended, carrying my rubber plunger in hand. Dornan has given away objects (I like to think of them as fellow participants) to the audience.

The work’s basic structure is one that is kind: kind to the objects, kind to participants and visitors, kind to the community. The object I have taken home has been transformed, from something disposable into a treasure. Dornan’s powerful work re-imagines a world of co-dependence and imagination. Our garbage belongs to us, and needs love too. We must pay attention to micro-acts of care, in our own back alleys. I walk down the street, loitering with intent, happily.

—Daniel Walker, Fall 2016


Daniel is a 4th year Bachelor of Arts student in the department of Art and Design. He is currently researching the role of speculation in design as a means of addressing anthropogenic climate change and is completing a project on participatory architectural practice in Beijing.

Photo from walk by Mitchell Chalifoux. Photo from gallery performance by Adam Waldron-Blain.