Go Easy on Steve, Steve

Posted on December 20th, 2016

Breanna Thompson

During the 2016 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.

How do we perform kindness? How are things that feel “kind” sometimes really not that kind? Johannes Zits, in his performance Go Easy on Steve, Steve, explores the difference between acts of kindness and what it takes to internalize self-love, and he does this by using performance as a mode of directed discovery (during my interview with him he called it a “focused attention”).

Johannes Zits, photo by Adam Waldron-Blain

The paisleys and florals that sit in a pile under his bare feet, at the foot of his ironing board, waffle between abandon and possibility. These materials are loaded with projected importance as we follow Zits through his ensuing wardrobe transitions. The cottons and polyesters are no more facades to be adorned than they are a rug to stand on while ironing, patiently waiting to be the next costume for self-appraisal. Books lie flagged and highlighted on his desk, full of self-help potential, and a wall of illegible thoughts on paper are spotlighted beside a plinth holding what can only be precious stones, so often categorized as healing.

The messy set stages a lonely man gently navigating an imagined line between isolation and being surrounded by us: the respectfully quiet. In response to how openness and vulnerability materialize in his performances, he insists on the difference between the two: openness is a passive role where one needs not reveal; to be vulnerable demands an active part, the role of exposure. Vulnerability is also momentary, as there can be danger in its persistence. As a way to challenge himself to a durational exposure, repetition becomes a platform for discovery; as vulnerability comes and goes, boredom ensues. As we fidget awkwardly, through this durational, iterative performance, he offers himself. For the audience, the endurance of silent viewership is a gift for self-reflection, and brings acute awareness of those around us and the excruciating loudness of shuffles and chair squeaks. The act of actually ironing a shirt, the care to remove all wrinkles is painstakingly time consuming in this performance.

The smallest shift in the artist’s apparent wanderings becomes a necessary punctuation for our focus. The mundane loop of ironing and redressing is peppered with orated excerpts from directed, at times uncomfortably patronizing, self-help books, only relieved by my mind’s innate desire to wander. The intimate moments dictate attention, Zits tucks in his shirt or fastens his belt, and I am relieved by the shift of activity. The expectation that he will approach the mirror to examine the new outfit brings a bubble of glee: I again get to watch him evaluate his choice. There is a reflexive gratification in being with his acceptance or disappointment in the outfit, and his self-image proclaimed with all it foibles and particularities.

As he approaches the mirror I see myself seeing him, both our reflections in the lonely mirror have but one purpose: to measure up. So what does it matter, what is to be explored further with yet another change of shirt or pant? I am with him, this is no longer a stage, nor I an audience, to be led through a tale or an improv show with which to be entertained. The transaction of my time for your actions is abandoned when I hit the wall where desire of newness is nonexistent, the creaks and cracks of my thoughts echo, and his aging body is so exposed.

Zits is letting us study him, and this is a kindness he bestows onto the audience. His willingness to expose is a plea for attention as much as it is a platform for unrelenting examination, as he exposes to us those ever politicized bits of flesh deemed unsavory for public consumption. I get to journey through his wrinkles and folds as but a surface for my seeking eyes and unsure thoughts. He is giving up his aging body so that we may truly see age. I want to examine his body, as he does. His willingness to remain vulnerable to both his image and examination, as well as to us, the audience, gives permission to my watching, my projecting—a release of voyeuristic tension or guilt. I am culpable in knowing that I, too, don an outfit in a vain attempt to secure my exterior, to impose control on my appearance, to somehow counter the anxiety of all those looking eyes in a day once I leave my home. I have those eyes. They are being employed in wonderful wanderings throughout this cyclic performance of self-image consumption.

Johannes Zits performing at Visualeyez 2016. Photo by Paula Kirman.

There exists a magic glow and simultaneous guilty charm to the commercial edit that Johannes inserts on a whim: “Go easy on Steve, Steve,” (an advertisement jingle) pierces the silent gallery with vibrations of truth in our desire for the not yet possessed and the harsh self-analysis that comes with wanting something (new clothes, self-help books, crystals) to fix us, to make us better.

The new pink shirt that Zits commits to de-tagging, commits to owning, commits to wearing, at the end of his performance loses its savvy magic when we know it is suddenly committed to the fate of ‘one of many’ and ‘part of the pile.’ Yet another failed attempt; yet another promise. And we are released from nervous silence to finally grab that drink.

—Breanna Thompson, Fall 2016

Breanna is a 3rd year BFA student at UofA majoring in Art and Design. Originally from Edmonton, she ventured out and completed her first two undergrad years at SFU in Vancouver. Currently her practice is immersed in intermedia and printmaking. She aims to continue learning and creating.