Latitude 53 presents Visualeyez 2017, the seventeenth edition of Canada's annual festival of performance art, from September 26–October 1, exploring the theme of awkwardness

Ray Fenwick: “How to Talk with Plants”

Posted by Michael Woolley on November 20th, 2017

There are plants and people around me, some sitting on shelves and chairs, others standing on the floor in pots and shoes alike. I recognize some of these others here, but many I do not, and I cannot even guess at most of their names. The greenhouse in which we find ourselves now is awash in greenlight, punctuated by the pulsating rhythm of a bulb blinking on and off from behind a large fan up near the roof. The air is thick with humidity and smells of rich humus, of earthy vegetable matter and dirt. We face toward the de facto ‘front’ of the space, where some audio equipment stands amongst a surfeit of plant-others, and a single human figure as well.


Ray Fenwick performs “How to talk to plants” at Visualeyez 2017. Photo by Adam Waldron-Blain.

Ray Fenwick is that human. He stands, hands clasped around the microphone he holds close to his mouth, staring at one of the houseplants sitting in front of him. The sound of his breath rushing over the microphone distorts and shudders through the space like indecisive gusts of wind. It is a wet and meaty sound, accentuated by other noises escaping his mouth: lips clapping together or tongue sliding around, along, and between his teeth and gums. Meanwhile, the microphone doesn’t register anything at all from his plant compatriots.

“Hello, I am a kind of meat, and I have feelings and sometimes I try to share those feelings.”

Still, the plants do not seem to care enough to respond.

Fenwick speculates about the possibility of interspecies communication, reaching out with his meat-hand to touch and caress the leafs and fronds of his leafy friends. His sotto voice gurgles in the back of his throat, and the sibilance of his whispers sliding past his tongue resonates in the vaulted space as he experiments with different vocalizations and vocalities. What sort of communion is possible between two beings so radically different? Are they and we so radically different at all?

He warbles and screeches in various efforts at communication, but in the absence of any clear response from the plants present, Fenwick talks instead to himself. His inner monologue is given voice through a large speaker routed through a mixing board and a pedal at his foot. He converses with his own pre-recorded thoughts. The disembodied voice poses questions and raises provocations, and the artist responds in kind. If plants could respond, what could we expect them to say? Maybe they can, but we just haven’t asked the right questions yet. Maybe they do, and we are otherwise oblivious to their retorts and exhortations. Maybe our own thoughts that we interpret as spontaneous creativity and insight are actually psychic missives from our chloroform fellows?

“It wasn’t creativity. It was a message, and you missed it!”

“What am I to you?” He poses the question, ostensibly to the plants around him, but offers the rhetorical query freely to the room. Fenwick’s conversation, with the plants, with himself, with the audience, is a series of similar propositions volleyed back and forth, at times answered directly and at times left to hang with their pendulous metaphysical weight an answer in and of itself. What is the nature of conversation, of relation between beings, irrespective of their apparent similarities and ability to communicate? He posits, in between breathy mouth sounds and some quizzical clicks of his tongue, that perhaps the ambiguity between plants and humans is no greater than that between humans and humans who seemingly talk with relative ease.

Fenwick’s performance ultimately asks us to consider what it means to take conversation as both method and material. He extends the form to logical extremes, addressing putatively non-sapient plants as easily and earnestly as he talks with his own pre-recorded voice. The reciprocal call and response between Fenwick and himself is contrasted with the unilateral monologue he maintains with his planty partners. Each exchange seems to be about as meaningful as the other. The audience is left to consider the degree to which relation—any relation at all—is possible, whether it is between other meaty beings like ourselves or our less animate cohabitants.

Julianne Chapple: “Women Appear (and sometimes they learn how to disappear)”

Posted by Michael Woolley on November 13th, 2017

We find ourselves sitting in a simulacrum of a living room. There is no fourth wall. Nor are there walls one-through-three. At the centre of the space is a large Persian-style carpet. In one corner: a modernist teak chair with blue upholstery sat on a small rug, a floor lamp, and a side table on which is placed a crystal decanter of whiskey and a tumbler glass. In the opposite corner: another, smaller armchair that looks quite comfy, and which has its own side table with a crystal ashtray on it. Some potted house plants—umbrella and ficus trees maybe?—bound the space, as do some benches. But the benches do not appear to be ‘of’ the space; they are merely here for our, the audience’s, benefit, so that we may watch. Strewn about and stacked upon the benches and tables are books, a plurality of which reference feminist art history and criticism. Music that matches the sentimentality of the room pours out from a speaker in the corner. Carefully placed on the rug in the centre of the room are sheets of paper on which are printed in large letters the house rules: “make yourself at home,” “enjoy your stay,” “feel free to move through the space,” “at your leisure,” “peruse the available reading material,” and “watch and be watched.”

Julianne Chapple performs “Women who appear (and sometimes they learn how to disappear)” at Visualeyez 2017. Photo by Adam Waldron-Blain.

Julianne Chapple sits in the blue chair. But ‘sits’ isn’t the right word. Chapple is sprawled across the chair, her limbs hanging toward the floor, in a way that carefully toes the line between languid and luxuriating. She is wearing high-waist tweed slacks and a loose-fitting white blouse. Her mousey hair completely obscures her face. Picking up the tumbler, Chapple pours it several fingers full of whiskey and takes a long sip. Her fingers take delicate purchase on the glass, and it seems rather that her hand and arm dangle from it instead.

An indeterminate amount of time passes, but at least one or two songs play that seem to long for less complicated times or the elusive love of a coy woman. Chapple sips at her whiskey from underneath her long hair, and we all sit and stare at her and each other. With nearly imperceptible slowness, the artist falls from the chair and onto the floor. But ‘falls’ isn’t the right word. Chapple slumps, almost melting, moving like a glob of treacle pouring itself onto and across the floor. There is a wallowing, indulgent viscosity to her movement as she makes her way around the space, whiskey ever in hand and face rarely seen.

Julianne Chapple performs “Women who appear (and sometimes they learn how to disappear)” at Visualeyez 2017. Photo by Michael JH Woolley.

She finds herself eventually sprawled across the rug, transcribing scribbles from a notebook into large letters on white paper. These letters resolve into provocative truisms, written each onto one or two pieces of paper, and arranged carefully in a grid that spans the carpet and spills onto the gallery floor:

muscular relaxation may make you appear / passive and/or sexually available

making up too much space may be seen / as an act of aggression

taking up too little space may be seen as weakness

making eye contact with an observer may make / you appear complicit in being watched

not making eye contact with an observer may make / you appear complicit in your role as an object

adopting the role of observer may be seen as / siding with your oppressor

Reading them, I am given pause considering the context, and I feel as though others here are as well. We watch carefully as Chapple writes these axioms, craning our necks, tilting our heads, and squinting out eyes to make out the words. There are uncomfortable chuckles and thoughtful murmurs as each page is finished and placed among the others. I let my eyes track across the room, lingering in the mutual stares of others doing the same. Chapple meanwhile sips her whiskey and meanders herself across the floor, onto and amongst the furniture with serpentine aloofness and acrobatic aplomb.

Julianne Chapple performs “Women who appear (and sometimes they learn how to disappear)” at Visualeyez 2017. Photo by Adam Waldron-Blain.

The artist makes her way around the gallery space, back to the blue chair, underneath benches, and behind people’s legs standing along the white walls, all without much obvious thought or care for who else might be in her space. And it is obviously and demonstratively her space. She is neither demure nor shrinking in her capacity to occupy it, and while she seemed once to be hiding from our gaze it is more clear now that she is rather refusing it. There is a peculiar and contradictory intimacy arising from encroaching upon Chapple’s space and her body, and we as an audience are left to question our own role in our discomfort here.

Chapple’s work asks us to engage with and impinge upon the artist. But we are left wondering to what extent we should take up such an offer simply because it is what is expected of us in this particular social space. The artist spreads herself out before us and challenges us to consider the tropes that lead us to conflate rightful confidence and bashful sultriness. To what degree are we obligated to watch—leer at?—an artist, and take her as an object to be examined? To what degree are we obligated to avert our eyes? These questions are rhetorical, but also pertinent, as made obvious by the uncritical and impudent stares that fall upon Chapple from some present in the room. Are we more or less complicit in watching others watch rather than by refusing to look at all?

Cameron Pickering: “Pass-Altruistic Panic, Changing Form”

Posted by Michael Woolley on November 9th, 2017

A tangled mass of wires hangs precariously from the ceiling, a distended mesh halo hovering just a few inches above the gallery floor. Like a delicate, sculptural cocoon, it wraps itself around a column of light, which splashes onto the floor from a single spotlight and dissolves into the dark corners of the space. A body lies on the floor, arms outstretched and toes wiggling ever so slightly as though marking the rhythm of inaudible beat.

Cameron Pickering, “Pass-altruistic panic, changing form”, at Visualeyez 2017. Photo by Michael JH Woolley

Cameron Pickering stares up at the ceiling from the centre of his nest-like cage and I sit across the room, watching, contemplating the quiet. Only one or two other people share the space with us for the time-being. I hear one of his arms drag across the floor—skin sliding across concrete, pulling with it tiny motes of dust and grit. He reaches up toward the wirework suspended above him, tracing along several sections with the tips of his fingers. The wires are knotted together in an irregular not-quite-honeycomb matrix, various lengths meeting and winding around one another. Their collective weight seems palpable: the nest-cocoon stretches taught near the ceiling and pulls tighter and closer together nearer the floor. One of Pickering’s fingers follow along a single wire before coming to a knotted juncture. With something like circumspective curiosity, it is as though his finger must carefully consider which path to follow next. I feel as though if I could listen carefully enough, the entire lacework would resonate like a street performer’s glass harp.

As the artist’s hands ponder their own handiwork and my eyes adjust themselves to the dissolving darkness, I turn my attention toward the rest of the space: there is a flashlight in one corner; two chairs sit some distance apart against a wall, each with a spotlight (currently unilluminated) clamped to its leg; across the room a large speaker has an audio cable snaking out from behind it; and scattered throughout the room are pieces of white chalk and words—instructions, commands—transcribed onto the floor.

While he sits within his wiry web, Pickering invites viewers to participate in the work, both directly through his chalk-scribbles and indirectly by way of the various objects scattered about. Using the flashlight, I read the invitations written on the floor. Run! Play a game of tag! Tell a joke! Initially, none of the handful of people here in the space seem interested in taking the artist up on these invitations. Before long, however, a critical mass of viewer-participants gather, and quiet gallery-whispers gradually become fully-fledged conversations, laughter, conviviality. The speaker pops loudly as someone plugs the 3.5mm audio jack into their phone. The space is soon awash in music.

Cameron Pickering, “Pass-altruistic panic, changing form”, at Visualeyez 2017. Photo by Michael JH Woolley

Pickering resists the tropes of the overly serious, stoic performance artist, talking to his viewer-participants—guests—going so far as to invite several into his cocoon to examine it from the inside-out. But, his audience eventually disperses, and the space is quiet once again, save for one or two of us lingering behind. Someone has traces the intricate maze of shadow cast by the wire onto the floor in white chalk lines, and someone else seems to have tried practicing their German in several cryptic messages. Pickering himself lies down, wiggles his toes, draws on the floor, and plays with the shadows cast on the wall by the spotlights. He writes in a journal, and as I get close to examine his wires, he asks me how to spell ‘conscientious.’ I think I gave him the wrong spelling. Whoops.

Over the course of several hours, people come and go. Music plays, punctuating the lengthy periods of interstitial silence. Pickering bides his time, meditatively contemplating something, writing, tracing wires, playing with shadows, and wiggling his long toes. Near the end of his performance, which now stretches into the evening, a crowd has gathered again. The space is buoyed with energy, and a woman asks if the artist would dance if she were to play music. He would. And he does. His feet slide across the floor in relative silence against the upbeat rhythm. He picks up some wire cutters and invites others to do the same. Together they dismantle the artist’s nest, dissecting it laterally, releasing him from its bounds.

Cameron Pickering, “Pass-altruistic panic, changing form”, at Visualeyez 2017. Photo by Adam Waldron-Blain

For the seven and a half hour duration of his performance, Pickering juxtaposes various formal and conceptual elements in his work and challenges viewers’ expectations. His own animated body—and those bodies of his viewer-participants—stand in active relief against the static (if dynamic) sculptural forms of his wirework, while the quiet contemplative mood suggested by the duration of the performance stands toe-to-toe with the radical interactivity of his instruction-gestures and direct audience engagement. While I found myself most drawn-in by those quiet, thoughtful moments in between bouts of action, many others were brought in and had their interest activated by Pickering’s lively and energetic performative gestures.