The building of Language In “Woven woven lost and found”, a performance by Linda Rae Dornan

Posted on December 22nd, 2016

Deltra Powney

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.

Photo by Sandra Der

Upon first meeting Linda Rae Dornan, I get the sense that she is mindful, seeking out a genuine place to connect. We sit at the table where she has already laid out items that she found the day before: pieces of cardboard, some silk flower rose petals, bits and pieces of paper, a pair of plastic glasses that had obviously been run over multiple times and left in the sun to oxidize, the lenses long gone.

Her prized find for that day, however, was a broken ski pole. She found it “just sitting there between two cement pillars. It was as though it was a gift, just for me!” The shaft of the pole is broken in two, a broom-like, splintered wound on one end. This broken pole has lost all its original usability. Stability. Now it seems to want to be transformed into something that sweeps things away. Things that are meant to disappear. How curious, I thought, that everything on the table was, at one point or another, meant to disappear. Ephemerality seems to be a theme in Dornan’s performance: the idea that things are not meant to last in their original form and usage. I wondered how theses items will be used in her performance. What meaning will be given to them?

I ask the artists how she sees her work in relation to the Anthropocene. She lights up and proceeds to tell me about her involvement with a group in New Brunswick that worked in successfully keeping shale gas exploration out of the area. She responds like someone who is very passionate about the land she comes from and notes that people seem disconnected from the land and that seems to lead to a mentality of carelessly stepping on nature… a lack of care in treading lightly and mindfully upon it.

Dornan shares that she has a cabin that she goes to, one that she shares with another family. She goes there to reconnect with nature. It is a place where she finds herself to be quite productive. “There is something about watching a hawk swoop down to catch its prey and the rhythm of nature that allows for that productivity.” She is deliberate and intentional in reconnecting with nature's rhythm there. She feels that a sense of connection to nature is lost now due to technology: “There is a paradigm happening right now where people are going to have to make these decision in how to exist in this space. The shift from being buried in a cell phone to catch Pokémon to actually experiencing spaces in the real. Let's go for a walk.”

The first items we find are two plastic corks on the sidewalk, scattered from a plastic garbage bag of leftover garbage from a party. Bottlecaps and napkins. Why is she drawn to the corks and not the caps? She goes directly to them, to the exclusion of the other items that are scattered along side. I am surprised the bottle caps do not appeal to her. In hindsight, I should have picked them up for my son (he is collecting them). A ting of guilt for not doing so goes through my thoughts. A missed opportunity of sorts.

We proceeded with our walk, scouring the city stone hardscape for any kind of interesting treasure. I am curious to see what she will find interesting, and don’t want to sway her decision process by suggesting items I see. However as we go on, I can’t help myself: I am picking up plastic tags, metal pieces, and a broken key chains. “I’m a crow” Dornan says with a giddy expression. So am I, apparently. She seems to approve of the items I’ve found. She now wants to accumulate straws to create confetti with. I find a clear one. “no not the clear ones; I only want the coloured ones.” It becomes apparent that she is very discerning about the objects she is collecting.

As we walk we talk, and she shares stories about her family and her partner, the home she owns, and the land she is from. We talk about the economic climate in regards to buying and selling property, and comment on the vast variations in property prices across the country. We discuss the importance of experiencing surroundings with all our senses, and that this seems to be lost with all the technology available to us (a topic that has been on her mind since a visit to her nephew, who was on the hunt non-stop for Pokémon with his smartphone in hand). She wishes, she tells me, to teach him to stop and touch and smell things. We stop to smell the roses at a retirement building. We talk about the value of engaging nature with our senses. We spot a pair of sunglasses with one lens popped out. She senses a theme in regards to observation and seeing. She is quiet. I respect that space of silence.

There were others along for the hunt today. She called it “loitering with intent”. It was interesting to see what everyone was finding, and how they were taking cues from Dornan. Yes to some items, no to others. Safety glasses found near a construction site; a sole of a boot; metal pieces; an old, decomposed rubber, funnel-shaped item. No one could guess what it was. This triggered a shshshshsshshshshSHSHSHHSHSWHAMP sound from Linda. A sound that goes from quiet to loud, and gradually is amplified in volume.

What language do these objects have?

Just lying on the ground perhaps they don’t have language, however the moment they are spotted, they enter into an exchange of consideration and value. It is obvious the objects give Linda an energy that ignites expression. Soon we are all caught up in this exchange with our finds.

I have only heard two objects so far. The little piece of paper with some numerical data on it: “didididatdatieeezzin!” (She stammered this out the first time we met) and then the funnel shaped object today. It is so simple and considerate—beautiful really—taking that which has been discarded and giving it new life through a mindful interaction. Birthing a new perspective of how we place meaning on objects, and how we move through spaces. The expression is what she then gives to us. And with that expressive language now given to us, we have the agency to perform our part in considering the objects we live with and the spaces we live in.

We walk back to the gallery with our finds and place everything on the table. Dornan gathers all the straws and washes them. She has been planning. On the opening night for Visualeyez, she said her performance (which would be taking place the next day) was coming together. She wasn’t concerned it wouldn’t, but “these things take time.”
I think she was referring to the language being built between her and the found objects. The construction of a language does takes time. It evolves and shifts. From our first meeting, four days earlier, to the opening evening, events were unfolding and language was being built. Walking, finding, experiencing, considering. Exchanges between artist, objects, and participants.

“Woven woven lost and found” is the name Dornan gives the piece. Fitting, as it has taken time to build this project, weaving in and out of spaces, allowing the objects to speak, then walking and collecting some more. My anticipation for the final performance is building as well. It will be a time of revealing, but for who? The artist? The participant? Or, perhaps the objects themselves? These “chosen ones” have been given a dignity now, a new purpose. In that, there seems to be kindness extended to the participants from the objects themselves. It is as if these object are saying, “Look what I have made you do! I have made you consider my presences, from the gutter of your streets, into your individual eye, into your hand, into your thoughts, to find a place in your collective consciousness.” Kindness comes in many different forms, this time it is in the form of awareness.

Linda Rae Dornan performing, photo by Adam Waldron-Blain

The final performance is a collage of sounds, words, movements, objects and curiosity. A spotlight directs the viewer's attention onto a mat in the middle of an empty room. This austere environment creates a sense of lament as we wait for the performance to begin. Linda comes out humming as she carries a storage tub—the kind of humming you do when everything is good with your soul, setting the tone as light hearted. Children looking on burst out in genuine laughter at the sounds she makes when she animates the objects. It is playful. They enjoy the new life these objects have been given. A life that wouldn’t have existed if these objects had not first been discarded and abandoned.

The mindfulness of Dornan’s consideration of objects is expressed through the ritualistic rhythm of revisiting each object after a new one is pulled out of the roughneck tub to be introduced in the sequence. A description is provided: the location where it was found, its former function, a new definition of its use. The items, through the act of being noticed and now presented, are being elevated. Simplicity is the key to this performance. It only lasts a half hour, but that is all it tales to become aware of how our consumption patterns impact everyone. The performance ends with a celebration, the drinking-straw confetti thrown into the air in celebration of renewal.

Afterwards, Dornan offers some of the items to the viewers. This seems fitting, as a gift exchange there was certainly a sense of investment on the part of the viewer. As a participant in finding many of the objects it was an appreciative ending, a gift extended to those who helped build the language of these objects. It was the investment of that building that brought the performance together and made for a rich experience in understanding how we chose to move on from this place of awareness. Perhaps it simply starts with a walk.

—Deltra Powney, Fall 2016

Deltra is a 4th year Bachelor of Fine Arts student (print, painting, and intermedia) in the department of Art and Design. She is currently researching geographical spaces of belonging and dislocation and is originally from Saskatchewan.

First photo by Sandra Der. Second photo of Linda Rae Dornan in performance by Adam Waldron-Blain.

In the first version, the shale gas exploration in New Brunswick was incorrectly identified as Shell Oil.