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

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.