Posted by Michael Woolley on December 20th, 2017
Two wooden folding chairs sit abreast and encircled by a collection of six space heaters. An audience faces them, waiting.
Kai Villneff and Sarah Ormandy—Pest Control—enter upstage left. They each turn on three heaters before taking their seats, Ormandy on our right and Villneff our left. A low, barely audible hum drones out of the now-energized heating coils, and several fans innocuously whirr. The reflector of the centremost heater glows a pale orange, but its heat does not quite reach the back rows of the audience. The artists both wear blue jeans and boots, and Villneff has a grey sweater while Ormandy wears a blue blouse with white polka dots. They sit placidly facing us, hands folded quietly in their laps or placed on their thighs, with glasses of water resting on the floor next to their feet. We wait.
Soon enough, their own voices boom from speakers behind them. What does it take to achieve success? Success! of course, they tell us. Like a self-help audiobook had a lovechild with a late-night infomercial, Pest Control begins elaborating upon the steps to achieving success in your professional creative career. SUCCESS is of course an acronym detailing the path to success. First, you have to be Superficial: being beautiful is the first step to success. Then you must Undertake the task of researching your successful interlocutors and social betters (but if you forget to do your research, just remember a few easy phrases, like “I’m a big fan of your work!”). To Connect with others, it is important to maintain eye contact and have a firm steady handshake. And in order to Control the situation, you must be able to make a graceful exit (“Excuse me, I have to use the bathroom”). Then, get ready to Start all over again, because the journey toward success is never-ending. And finally, don’t forget Success! That’s right, the final step toward SUCCESS is Success!
While their pre-recorded voices wryly elaborate in slow, deliberate and redundant but humorous detail the keys to success, Villneff and Ormandy sit stoic as ever in their chairs, maintaining their composure as the heat bears down upon them. They both sweat, and from time to time sip water. It is not until the recorded performance goes through the entire acronym, followed by a few helpful tips, that the artists actually speak. Ormandy speaks and Villneff repeats: “Success!” “Success!” “S” “S” “U” “U” “C” “C” “C” “C” “U” “U” “S” “S” “S” “S”. All they while they maintain their cool-blooded composure in spite of what I can only imagine must be oppressive heat. And as abruptly as they began, Villneff and Ormandy stop, stand up, turn off the heaters, and exit upstage left. The audience is left in silence to wonder, is it over? There is some murmuring, and people chuckle to themselves while looking around. Meanwhile, Pest Control have snuck in behind us. They re-enter the gallery space, wearing demure turtle-necks and brandishing fizzy drinks in fluted glasses. Their cold demeanor is gone as they enter the room beaming, putting into hyperbolic practice their own advice. “Hi! How are you? How is your project going? I’ve heard so much about it! That’s fantastic—oh, excuse me I have to go!” They meet and greet and schmooze and shake hands and make eye-contact with just the right amount of cheerful disingenuousness. At one point, I find myself shaking Villneff’s hand vigorously, goofily smiling in response to his candour and charm, all the while stammering as I realize my mind has gone completely blank in the moment and I have no idea what to say. I look “quite the fool,” as Ormandy had warned I would if I did not stick to their steps to SUCCESS only minutes prior.
Pest Control blurs lines between scripted theatricality and live performative presence: they layer the performance art trope of the affectless-artist-is-present-in-absurd-situation underneath a droll and self-aware pre-recorded audio performance; this contrasts sharply with the lively and responsive denouement of the work. It was unclear to me at the time—and it remains so upon reflection—whether the fun performative payoff at the end of the work is helped or hindered by the lengthy diegetic buildup that precedes it. I suspect the work might function more effectively were it formally split into two ‘parts’. The pre-recorded theatre seems better suited to live separately, accessible like an actual audiobook or ‘how-to’ video online, and serving to inform the more performative ‘conclusion’ of the work in the gallery. Irrespective of how it might be reimagined in future iterations, however, the work nevertheless pokes and prods anxiety and insecurity in a peculiar way and you are left unsure whether you’ve learned how to bamboozle your way through high society or if you’ve just been bamboozled yourself.
Posted by Michael Woolley on December 18th, 2017
The whining buzz of quivering needles penetrates the air. It reverberates in my skull someplace behind my eyes and between my ears. Meanwhile, fall leaves, impelled by a cool wind, skitter across the concrete in a staccato arrhythmic rush, and the warmish sun cuts between the surrounding buildings and projects lengthening shadows. People around, passing by, waiting for busses, or maybe eating a hotdog, seem to pretend not to notice. This scene, unfolding before them on that wooden park bench, might as well be the most banal thing they’ve seen. But, some people do take care to notice, sit down, perplexed, intrigued, or curious, and start asking questions or telling stories of their own.
Ivan Lupi is tattooing himself. He sits on a bench in a park downtown, hunched over and tracing lines on his belly with fresh black ink. The lines resolves into letters and words, spelling out W E T P A I N T on two lines. Underneath, letters in faded red read ‘PEINTURE FRAICHE’. The stems and arms of the new letters are thick, and the word ‘WET’ is exaggeratedly stretched out to completely cover its French counterpart. He works left-to-right, starting with his left, filling in the ‘T’ before moving along to the ‘E’ and the ‘W’ respectively, working his way down his abdomen to the letters skirting his waist. The vibrating stylus he holds gingerly between his thumb and middle- and forefingers is connected by a snaking wire to a transformer in a bag behind his feet, which is itself precariously connected to an outlet several meters away through a long green extension cord.
Lupi is conspicuous here, sitting shirtless amongst these office buildings and office dwellers. He is difficult to ignore, but some manage to nevertheless. Others steal quick glances from what they presumably deem to be a ‘safe’ distance, well within earshot but far enough to avoid being implicated in whatever might be going on. The artist is like a shaman here, flaunting convention and calling into question what is acceptable decorum. Some people are less apprehensive, or lacking in timidity or have an abundance of temerity or are just completely unfazed by the artist. They approach him to sit and chat. They ask questions about ‘why’ and whether this is sanitary and safe or they tell him their own stories or listen to him talk about things otherwise unrelated. Meanwhile Lupi hunches over and traces the letters on his skin. He takes frequent breaks, leaning back with his elbows propped on back of the bench and legs stretched out in front of him.
Later, I find the artist on a bench in the gallery. He has moved his performance inside to escape the quickening autumn cold. I sit next to him and we talk—about talking, about him, and his work and tattoos and my own work and our lives and love and the weather—and I examine him and his work in closer detail. The bench and the floor around him are covered in a fine halftone pattern of sprinkled black spots of ink. His skin sheens with a slick of sweat, and the wet ink on it wicks into otherwise imperceptible lines and creases like fine black capillaries webbing away from the letters. It’s tender, he says. This is now the third day in the past four of tattooing over the same lines again and again, slowly building up the density of ink embedded in the his skin. I don’t doubt that it’s swollen and raw, but the pain is layered away beneath a gloss of ink.
There is something evocative and symbolic, Lupi tells me, about tattooing one’s own skin, transferring a thought directly from your mind onto your body with no intermediary—like a closed loop. But this public process of self-inscription opens the artist up at the same time, to criticism and dialogue and conviviality alike. He is approachable and disarming, in spite of or because of being layered from head-to-toe in various tattooed markings and inscriptions, indices and records of previous performances and life events. This performance itself is not one of exhibitionism or masochism, and is rather one of creating a space for conversation and exchange. It catches people off-guard with a bit of absurdity and makes them just uncomfortable enough to consider why they might feel comfortable or not in the first place. A half-naked man, sitting on a bench scrawling a caution into his skin, might not seem like the most obvious choice of conversation partner. But, Lupi is transparent in his kindness, warmth, and generous willingness to listen and talk, and he models a kind of caring engagement, albeit belied by a wet, sticky warning on his stomach.