Posted by Cindy on October 4th, 2010
So last weekend I was sitting – hiding – in Sydney’s office at Latitude 53 while a wedding took place out on the balcony. It kind of felt like the performance festival was still going on, not because of some sort of cynical attitude on my part towards the spectacle of marriage, but because there was a nice big audience for the relatively intimate event, and half the people had cameras, and because they all clapped when it was over. I mean, and because it happened at Latitude 53 (duh). It got me thinking about performance art, as I had been for 2 straight weeks without a break. I mean, I’m a believer in the idea that it’s art because the artist says it’s so. But what makes it performance?
Visualeyez is great for presenting a breadth of performance practices and for testing the limits of what is considered performance. More even than the varieties of food-related performance this year were the varieties of ways in which the works were performed by someone – or something – other than the artists themselves.
Adina Bier performed – but passively – and asked the audience to be the active performers in her work On Boulevard de Clichy.
Culinary Cultures in the Kinder/Garden enlisted bacteria and other life forms that were as much the performers as Alison Reiko Loader and Kelly Andres.
Hourglass begged to be performed even in the absence of the artist Chun Hua Catherine Dong.
In Show Me Your Edmonton, Robin Lambert and Brette Gabel invited the intimate audience to be equal collaborators in creating the art.
caribou X crossing‘s Beau Coleman, Melissa Thingelstad and Matthew Skopyk had the audience of Miles of Aisles perform the work, though it was the grocery store itself that was on display. During the group tour, the audience had the great fortune of experiencing both the story playing on their iPods and the spectacle of the throng of other participants misbehaving in the grocery store.
Just about all the work was participatory, inviting viewers to share and contribute to the work.
Food Wars in particular invited viewers to share not just in the experience but in a meal prepared by the artists Naufús Ramirez Figueroa and Manolo Lugo.
In Ask Me About Salt, the very title encourages spectators to engage with the artist Randy Lee Cutler.
Comfort Room, the one performance where the audience was clearly the spectator and the artists Jennifer Mesch and Scott Smallwood the performers on stage, was a foil for the other projects, reminding us of the value and beauty of performance made to be watched and experienced.
Not only did I get to see all the performances and get to know all the artists, but I was also privileged to be at the gallery every day watching all the behind-the-scenes action, and I saw all the hard work that went into making Visualeyez a reality.
Before I leave the blog and go back to my life in Saskatoon, I just want to extend a wholehearted thanks to Todd Janes and the whole Visualeyez team, including all the staff and volunteers at Latitude 53. There’s no way I’ll be able to remember everyone’s names, but I’ll do my best. Thanks to Robert Harpin, Alaine Mackenzie, Vicky Wong, Sydney Lancaster, Russell whose last name I never caught but who did all the heavy lifting no one else dared to, Jamie Hamaguchi, Heather Challoner and Jacqueline Ohm all the other volunteers and all the board members who attended and volunteered at the events and everyone else behind the scenes that I never got to meet but who helped make the festival so amazing! (I’m talking to you, Sally Poulsen!)
And special thanks to all the artists! I’m really grateful to have had the chance to meet you and get to know you, and I feel like I made some really close friends. Those artists who I already knew I had the chance to get to know better, and I’m coming away from the festival enriched as an artist and a writer and a person.
Posted by Cindy on September 19th, 2010
So now I’m deadly hungry and it’s getting late. I spent the morning in my hotel room writing and I really don’t want to be late for today’s Food Wars performance by Manolo Lugo and Naufús Ramirez-Figueroa, though I anticipate it’ll be quite late getting started. I want to settle in and really soak up the surroundings, not to mention getting a good seat!
I’m going to head over to Credo before going to the gallery, though. I haven’t made time to go there yet but as they’re one of the festival’s sponsors, I’m already a big fan!
Alison Reiko Loader moved in to my hotel room today, which means that Randy Lee Cutler‘s on her way out of town. Hopefully I’ll have a chance to talk with her a bit more this afternoon before she leaves; there are still things I want to ask her about salt!
Posted by Cindy on September 19th, 2010
When Todd Janes asked me to be the festival animator for Visualeyez this year, I jumped at the chance. Though I moved away from Edmonton ten years ago, I think I’ve missed only one Visualeyez festival. Sometimes it has been the lineup of artists that has drawn me back, and sometimes it’s the curatorial theme. Once I actually performed in the festival. But now, a decade later, I’m back to bring my expertise and my experience to bear in writing about the performances and the festival itself.
Though I am confident that I was hired for the right reasons, ultimately, I do find myself wondering:
Is it my knowledge of performance art, my skill as a writer, or my own body’s generous proportions – and its assumed relationship to a love of food – which landed me this job?
Of course, everyone has an intimate connection with food. Over the past decade, however, in addition to my close connection to this festival, I have developed a very troubled relationship with food. I mean, I don’t have a “problem” with food – (I like it, but not too much) – my body does. It keeps rejecting it. Every few months, there’s a new list of foods I can’t eat anymore. It complicates, for me, the whole “food art” thing. It’s not just social, it’s not all about connecting with other humans and about a humble gesture or a grand event. It’s a problem. It’s a negotiation. If I eat this now, what can’t I eat tomorrow? If I indulge today, how will I pay tonight? How sick am I willing to get in exchange for a fun night out, or an indulgent snack, or to make it easier on the rest of the people at the dinner party?
As a fat woman making performance art, I do work about body politics and fatness; I have to, since it will be read into my work whether I intend it or not. But I have never made art about food. Aside from being projected onto with the assumption that I eat too much, I consider fatness and food to be completely separate topics in my life.
But I know that I’m the exception and not the rule. A lot of body issue art centres on the topic of food, and conversely, a lot of food art centres on the body. Which is why I’m so surprised that in this whole performance art festival with a food thematic, featuring 14 artists from across the continent, there are no body diversity projects on the schedule.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing. I think it’s heartening, really. Maybe the body diversity and fat activist-related art movements have finally gotten beyond talking about food. Maybe when artists think about food as a topic these days they don’t automatically pathologize it. Maybe, partly due to the relational movement, food has become its own contemporary artistic thematic removed from body anxiety.
Whatever the reasons for their absence, I find myself longing for sisters-in-arms at this festival. Because this year Visualeyez puts the spotlight on food, it puts the spotlight on eating, and it presents opportunities for public eating. And for a fat person, eating food in public is a political act. (Even though I’m not upset that they’re not here, I still want to meet some fabulous fat foodies who’ll come to Food Wars with me today and eat!) I know Naufús Ramirez-Figueroa has made work about the large body in the past, and often makes great food as part of his performances, so I think tonight’s Food Wars performance will be at the very least a safe space for a conversation about fat positivity and eating as a healthy and emotionally affirmative act.
I performed in Edmonton last year in another festival, a queer arts festival whose theme happened to be body difference, and I actually felt a lack of body size difference in that festival. There much more than here, I was confused that a whole festival on the theme of celebrating diversity in the range of human bodies would have one token fat person. To be fair, there was pretty much also only one token transgendered person, one person of colour, a documentary about a drag king troupe that was admittedly pretty diverse and I guess not a lot of other artists at all. I suppose it comes down less to sensing a feeling of hostility towards these politics and more of a lack of awareness about them.
So when I talked with Randy Lee Cutler about her performance for Visualeyez, and when I heard the descriptions of it from people who attended the first performance, I felt a connection, as though I had finally found a kindred spirit here at this year’s Visualeyez, politically. In the absence of a formalized “body diversity” contingent at this year’s festival, Ask Me About Salt feels like my main ally at least in terms of my own artistic and conceptual interests.
That’s because Randy’s project sets out to challenge people’s perceptions about salt – the fact that it’s unhealthy, that we should be doing everything we can to reduce it, that it serves no healthy purpose, that it will kill us – sound familiar? It’s the same party line about fat; not just the substance fat, but the state of being.
Instead she provides scientifically germane information about salt’s many health benefits, especially more natural/less processed salts. She is an absolute fount of information about salt, its chemical properties and medical uses; its history, its literary references and allegorical meanings; how it has inspired oppression and sparked revolution. She not only wants to change people’s minds about salt and educate them about all the different ways the body needs it, but she aims to inspire people to reclaim salt, to become passionate about it and to stop fearing it.
Of course, this leads into a larger conversation about fear and how we have become and allowed our bodies to become controlled by fear and therefore controlled by outside forces – by governments who have controlled the salt trade, by the food industry that puts obscene amounts of refined sodium in our processed foods, by corporate interests who benefit from health movements both valid and artificially contrived, by the multi-billion dollar annual diet industry. Cutler’s project is a call-to-arms to reject what we are told, and to listen to our bodies. To be curious. To trust our appetites. To not fear our physicality.
Salt provides a powerful fortification against fear; it has been used throughout history in cultures around the world to ward off evil and is used in magic rituals and religious ceremonies to this day. Drawing on the sidewalk in salt, Randy Lee Cutler uses her magic powder to create images of the molecular structure of salt and its chemical makeup. Creating a protective circle around the performance, the artist makes a safe space for our taboo conversation and we share stories about salt. When people on the street stop to see what’s going on, Randy engages them in conversation about their own relationship to salt. I’m surprised at how long the people who stop stay to talk, at how interested people are in sharing their stories about salt. Salt is the artist’s great equalizer; everyone has feelings about and an appetite for salt. I watch these strangers take samples poured out of test tubes, hold their hand close to their face to inhale and lick the powders from their hands. I’m amazed at how the performance has drawn people in so intimately, how easily people can recount salt-related stories and how eager they are to share.
Salt still occupies the role of magic in the contemporary imagination. My friend Suzette, seeing the molecular symbol for sodium drawn out in salt on the floor at Latitude 53, was reminded of salt’s use in the television series Supernatural, to repel or trap ghosts and demons. Comforted by the magical protection of the space, she did have to chastise a festival volunteer for messing up the spell after he thoughtlessly walked through it when setting up a food table. Upon spilling salt, how many of us half-jokingly toss a pinch over our left shoulder?
In her salt-white denim outfit and salt apron, casting salt onto the street, Randy becomes the Johnny Appleseed of salt, encouraging and enabling people everywhere she goes to be self-sufficient by taking back control of their bodies and what they put in it. Offering tastes of exotic salts from around the world, she sows the seeds of understanding, preaching her gospel to anyone who will listen, opening minds and creating possibilities for diversity of flavour and leaving a newfound appreciation for the lowly substance.
With her mysterious array of salt-filled test-tubes she also becomes the salt shaman, casting spells in salt that help to make our bodies stronger, that increase our knowledge and grow our capacity for understanding. She brings history back to life in the body of salt, teaching a history of tyranny, subjugation and uprising. Her magic makes our taste buds more sensitive to the nuances in flavour, it paints vivid pictures in our minds and stimulates our appetites, making us excited for the possibilities opened up to us through salt.
Posted by Cindy on September 18th, 2010
I’m up bright and early today; even though I was blogging into the night, there’s no way I was gonna miss today’s 10:30 am feedback session on Alison Reiko Loader and Kelly Andres‘ work Culinary Cultures of the Kinder/Garden: it’s got a lot going on, and I’m gonna need all the help I can get in writing about it!
I have spent quite a bit of time in their installation, and have engaged with the work in every way they’ve presented options – eating the food cultures, getting hands-on with the work, watching the video projections, and even adopting a “doughbie,” wearing it all night. (more about that later…) I’ve engaged every way I know how, EXCEPT for talking with them much about the work. Yet.
So I’m counting on today’s feedback session to give me some “meat” for a longer post on their work.
Luckily there’s also a great blog about the project as well, which I’ve had up on my desktop for days but haven’t explored much yet. It’s not a matter of not being interested enough to explore the work, it’s a matter of finding time in the day!
But between that feedback session and the caribou X crossing live performance walk of their project Miles of Aisles at Sobey’s later this afternoon, I should have time to finish the post that’s been simmering in my brain for several days now about Randy Lee Cutler‘s Ask Me About Salt, and to get a good start on one for Alison and Kelly.
Posted by Cindy on September 18th, 2010
Sitting in the reception area of Latitude 53 for a great majority of my time this week, I’ve been paying a lot of attention to the people coming in and out of the ProjEx room where Chun Hua Catherine Dong is performing her piece, Hourglass. I’ve also hovered around quite a bit while others help her paint the grains black, one by one. One thing I’ve noticed is that most people, shortly after sitting down with Dong, proclaim that they find the task of painting the rice very meditative. Some are too frustrated by the overwhelming enormity of the task to continue, while others are content to sit for long periods of time, engaging the artist in conversation about the performance, her other work, and about whatever else comes up. Of course, whenever there is an opportunity to connect with the artist and learn more about their work, especially within the context of a performance, I am a strong advocate of taking advantage of the situation!
Speaking of which, there are 2 feedback sessions on festival projects today (Saturday) – Kelly Andres and Alison Reiko Loader talking about Culinary Cultures of the Kinder/Garden at 10:30 AM at Latitude 53, and caribou x crossing talking about Miles of Aisles at 6 pm at Latitude 53. This is your opportunity to find out what inspired some of the works in the festival and have your questions answered by the artists themselves.
In the case of Dong’s work, however I am also eager to encourage you – if you have a chance to sit down with Chun Hua Catherine one-on-one over a couple of bowls of rice, please take the time to talk with her about her work!
So I was talking with the artist about the work, and about how people have engaged with it, and she was telling me that indeed, most people seem to claim that they find the process of painting the rice very meditative. I suspect that if the project did not involve grains of rice but, let’s say, tiny plastic pellets, and if Chun Hua Catherine Dong was not Asian, it would be harder to solicit participation in the performance and that those who did participate would almost universally reject the notion that it is a soothing, relaxing or meditative experience. She said that in fact, when she performed this project in Vancouver, people tended to bow to her when they got up from helping her paint grains of rice, thanking her for sharing the experience with them.
With a gleeful laugh, Chun Hua Catherine (who seems to be developing a sophisticated practice around the notion that you simply cannot judge a book by its cover) explains that this performance is the farthest possible thing from the Buddhist meditation ritual people are perceiving the work to be, a ritual which is performed without goals – the meditation is its own goal. Conversely, her project of painting rice is very goal-oriented; she has set out to complete a very labour-intensive task, and when people volunteer to participate, they are not entering into a ritual that she is leading for their mutual betterment, they are entering into unpaid labour towards an enterprise of production for a thankless and endless task. And then they thank her for the opportunity!
It occurs to me that the viewer might easily replace the stereotype of the Asian zen-master in this scenario for that of the sweatshop.
Of course this is not to negate the experience of the participants; you will recall from earlier blog posts that I also found the experience of painting rice grains compelling. Rather, I think it is important to try to recognize the quiet deployment of well-worn stereotypes during activities and interactions we engage in which are deserving of deeper reflection.
Chun Hua Catherine and I talk about some of her other work, including a project called Looking for a White Husband where she has distributed promotion proclaiming herself to be “an exotic, compliant and artistic Asian girl, looking for A WHITE HUSBAND who would like to take me to his home and live with him for a day as his mail order bride.”
This husband-seeking project, as many of her other projects, I can see, has much to do with the exercise and exertion of power. I start to think about this in the context of the work she is presenting at Visualeyez, partly relative to her interactions with the participants, but also in terms of the content of the work itself, which aims to “reconfigure the established centralized power in order to create an equal, fair and balanced world.“
My friend Suzette Chan arrived at the Visualeyez launch party, and I was introducing her to the performances and installations throughout the gallery spaces. Chun Hua Catherine Dong had not yet arrived and in fact had not performed on Thursday at all, so the performative space appeared very different from how I had been experiencing it to date – quiet, and because of the employment of precision implements (tweezers, tiny paintbrushes, tiny ink bowls) and stark white colour, quite sterile. I recounted to Suzette the story Chun Hua Catherine had told me about the bowing participants and their reading of the work as meditative. (To be fair to the participants, the artist really was only too aware of this potential reading of the work from the beginning and is quite obviously exploiting those stereotypes in this work, especially upon reading the rest of her Rice Performance Series, where reliance on Asian stereotypes is essential to the work.) I think Dong’s amusement in this case resides not in any reading or misreading of the work, which is in fact very multilayered and engages stereotypes through employing them quite literally and humorously; it lies, I think, in the reactions of participants, which have been uniform enough to carry some important revelations about the work and how it is understood. If only I could decode what revelations those might be…
So Suzette and I were looking at the performance site sans artist and I was telling her how other people were reading the work, when she told me that upon first glance at the unpeopled work, POWER is the FIRST thing she thought of. And that the bowl of painted rice, contrasted against the clean and controlled space looked, to her, very violent.
I started thinking about the work in that context, and about forced change in nature; the compulsion to control and change people, plants, culture. I first read the work quite literally as an attempt to correct the power distribution to a white/non-white parity but now I am starting to read it also as the attempt to achieve a balance of the “natural” versus the “controlled,” and to see the artist as an agent for that control, much as she is in her other performance work.
Now, I know that white rice is already a pretty heavily-controlled commodity – cultivated, cleaned and packaged. But in this project it’s being taken from something useful and nutritious and being made useless. If this work is indeed about colonialism, is it about addressing and correcting a colonial world by taking half of it back, or is it the artist who is colonizing the rice, one grain at a time?
Posted by Cindy on September 17th, 2010
I just got back from the gallery, where I went to eat the lunch I picked up at Sobey’s after taking in caribou X crossing‘s Miles of Aisles – walk 1 (Anne).
And now I’m rushing off to see Randy Lee Cutler‘s Ask Me About Salt at 4 pm on Whyte Avenue (in front of Chapters).
I already have a backlog of great things to post about so I know it’s gonna be another long night for me, and that’s not including another evening of performances tonight at Latitude 53!
Quick note: Lunch included assorted Sobey’s sushi, Voss sparkling water, fresh raspberries and carrots in purple, yellow and orange! Tried some wheatgrass agar agar from Kelly and Alison‘s performance, which just gets more and more interesting! I plan to carry around a bread dough baby as soon as they’re ready to go; I give off almost enough body heat to bake a loaf of bread, let alone just let the dough rise!
Posted by Cindy on September 17th, 2010
I’m staring out the window of my hotel room, trying to convince myself that it’s not quite as lovely outside as my mind wants me to believe! It’s a bright sunny day; the perfect day for a walk!
I’m getting ready to go to Sobey’s to partake of caribou X crossing‘s Miles of Aisles!
It’s the first time I’ve used my iPod for anything like music or video, so I’m nervous about whether it will even work. It should be okay, though, right? How hard can it be?
I was up blogging all night but am surprisingly refreshed today and am looking forward to more great art and engaging conversation! I’ve got several pages of notes about projects I both have and haven’t seen, so hopefully this afternoon I will find time to sit down and do some more big bursts of writing. I also need to make time to eat properly! Today, in the interest of health and sanity, I will entertain any and all invitations for coffee breaks, lunches and supper dates! Unless it means missing Randy Lee Cutler‘s Ask Me About Salt at 4 pm, (which I missed yesterday) or Jennifer Mesch and Scott Smallwood‘s The Comfort Room at 7:30, which is only being performed once!
Wow; I’d better get going! Stop by the gallery sometime after 1 pm if you want to help make sure I’ve eaten something today!
Posted by Cindy on September 16th, 2010
I missed Randy Lee Cutler‘s performance Ask Me About Salt this morning, and I’m looking for someone to talk to about how it went. There were quite a few people there, from what I’ve heard, but all the ones that I have easy access to are staff, volunteers and festival artists, and they’re all too busy to sit and chat about art right now!
Speaking of sitting and chatting, I’m sitting here talking with Chris Robot, a local artist and musician. He really friendly, and seems excited about the festival! We’re talking about the privilege of the performance artist, and about street art and class and stigma. Even when we don’t have money, we’re all really lucky to be where we are in this art world, and I try not to forget that, especially when I’m surrounded by so much amazing art and creative people! Great start to the day!
Too bad he didn’t see Randy’s performance; we could talk about that! Maybe I can get him to show up tomorrow, and we can BOTH see it and then talk about it!
There’s a trace of Randy’s performance here in the gallery. At least, I assume that’s what it is. It’s much to deliberate to be an accidental salt spill! It’s very mysterious, especially considering I missed the performance today… I’m definitely not missing tomorrow!
Posted by Cindy on September 16th, 2010
(This is a post I posted this morning before getting to the gallery, but that has since disappeared… so it happened BEFORE I got to the gallery today!)
It’s too bad I can’t drink coffee anymore, because I could really use one.
I hate the first morning in a new hotel, because I never know how I’m gonna wake up; whether the alarm clock will work right, if I wake up grumpy from not sleeping well, stuff like that.
Well, I slept alright, but the alarm clock, inexplicably, didn’t go off at all. I double-checked that it was turned on, that it was set to AM, and that the volume was up nice and loud on a really obnoxious radio station. Oh well, it’ll be wakeup calls from now on for me!
So it’s noon, and I’m just waking up, which means I’m missing Randy Lee Cutler‘s performance Ask Me About Salt this very minute. I would’ve had to get up early enough to figure out exactly where it’s happening anyway… I hope to connect with Randy at the gallery this afternoon and ask her how it went, so I can make it to the next one! Latitude 53 staff posted the location of the performance on Twitter this morning, so to find tomorrow’s location, check the twitter feed on the left-hand side of the page!
That reminds me – the downloadable festival schedule is now available – just click the purple button on the top left!
I should get to the gallery just in time to make myself a cup of tea and settle in for Adina Bier‘s bananariffic performance at 2 pm!
See you there!