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

Thanks, Edmonton!

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.

Thanks everyone!

- - My last night in town, out with Todd Janes and super volunteer Heather Challoner at Ramen Noodle Maker. (Todd mugs for the camera, indulging in a post-festival moment of mania.) - -

Miles of Blog posts!

Posted by Cindy on October 3rd, 2010

During Visualeyez, it was very important to me in my role as festival animator to experience all of the art as fully and wholly as I could; to not hold back or be shy in participating. Though I think I am often inclined, like all of us from time to time, to hang back and watch the bravest souls take the first big leaps, I was determined to be that brave soul every day during the festival.

So when it came to Miles of Aisles, a performative tour through a local grocery store produced by caribou X crossing (Beau Coleman, Matthew Skopyk and Melissa Thingelstad), I was in there like a dirty shirt. I downloaded the tours onto my iPod, which I had never used for audio or video playback before. I was really keen to take in what the project’s website describes as “an artist-led performance walk through Sobeys Urban Fresh (Jasper Ave & 104th St.) that explores the idea of ‘food as portal’.” This was going to be very untraditional theatre (even for Edmonton audiences who are fortunate to be blessed with some pretty amazing experimental theatre), but part of a tradition that’s growing in experimental theatre and performance art scenes around the world.

- - Jennifer Mesch participating in Miles of Aisles. - -

The project sounded interesting enough in its own right, but I was excited about Miles of Aisles partly because it reminded me of a performance work I never got to see when I was in Finland last year for ANTI Festival, a project called Wondermart presented by Rotozaza. Rotozaza’s thing is that they’ve invented a “new genre” of performance that they call Autoteatro – live art that is performed by the audience for themselves (and each other). In Autoteatro, there is not meant to be an audience outside of the performer; as the troupe describes: “the different tracks are synchronised and pre-recorded, meaning the participants are alone with each other during the experience, with no human input beyond someone handing them the headphones or sometimes pressing ‘play’. An Autoteatro work is a ‘trigger’ for a subsequently self-generating performance.”

Though Rotozaza claim to have invented this kind of performative activity, there are now other troupes and collectives working in similar types of audience-generated performance as well as not-so-similar choreographed public events. Improv Everywhere has made a whole career out of massive participatory happenings, for example. There are also genres of performance based in the theatre tradition but which take place onsite or over a walking tour, such as promenade theatre and site-specific theatre.

Of course, quasi-narrative work like Miles of Aisles also brings to mind the work of Janet Cardiff (and partner George Bures-Miller who sometimes collaborates with Cardiff on the audio tours). Rather than positioning themselves as “organizers” or “producers” of the work and the audience as the “performer,” Cardiff (and Bures-Miller) retain the role of the artist(s) in their works, and the audio tour is the unique venue for the artistic experience had by the audience. (The notion of ‘performance’ is of lesser concern to these artists.)

Cardiff has claimed to have invented the genre of the walking audio tour as art, which “use(s) the narrative and technical language of film noir to create lush, suspenseful sound… works.” Her particular tour style relies on the uncanny sensation created when overlapping the real experience of a space with a prerecorded reality of that same space.

Miles of Aisles captures some of that uncanny sensation, especially when it presents a “video path” for participants to follow; more than one of my fellow audience members noted how strange it felt to try to move out of the way of a person in the aisle only to realize that the person was on the screen of their iPod and was not actually standing in the aisle they were trying to negotiate. The ‘uncanny’ audio elements are less amazing in this work than in Cardiff’s; to be sure, Cardiff and Bures-Miller have spent their careers developing and capitalizing on complex audio-capturing and playback techniques designed specifically to generate the sensation of real life. (The audio elements of Miles of Aisles are great, by the way – the recording is clear and easy to listen to, and the sound effects are perfectly adept.)

Miles of Aisles also seems more aligned with Cardiff’s work than Rotozaza’s in its adherence to a narrative structure; caribou X crossing’s project for Visualeyez seems more concerned with the creation of a story that is being told to you inside a grocery store, and less concerned with the store itself, or what the audience is doing inside it. I’m not sure that the site or the audiences’ actions should be of greater interest to the artists than the story or the experience of it, I’m just interested to see what elements of the encounter have been privileged in this work and how that affects the audiences’ experience of it. But it does raise an interesting question about the structure of Miles of Aisles, as intended by the artists – is the audience the performer, or are the recorded artists the performers?

The project description does say that the artists are exploring the idea of ‘food as portal’ and that they want us to “to discover where (we) might be transported by food.” So if I approach this performance with the assumption that the grocery store and everything inside it is the portal – the mode of delivery, ie the movie screen – and NOT so much the venue of the performance – ie the stage – then I’m not the actor, but the audience, and the store/the food is transporting me to a place inside my head where the action is taking place. (Hmm. This line of thought merits further reflection…)

SPOILER ALERT

I want to describe my experience for those of you who have not and will not be able to do the Miles of Aisles tour, but since the files are still downloadable, and since the store is still there, and that’s really all you need to be able to participate (plus a portable media-enabled device and, well, the ability to get to the Sobeys on Jasper Avenue in Edmonton), its not too late! For those of you who still want to participate in Miles of Aisles, go HERE instead of reading on.

But wait!

Before you go, I just want to tell you that I highly recommend taking a friend with you, one who has their own media device, who can play the other role (there are 2 sides to the story). If you can’t bring a friend, at least go prepared to do it twice, so you can play both parts. Or go with a friend AND do it twice! Then come back here, finish reading this post, and let us know how it went!  (It’s bound to be a little glitchier for you than it was during the festival; no grocery store layout or selection of produce stays static for long, and things are going to get moved around the more time elapses between the festival and when you do the tour. I did the tour one last time myself on the day I left town, several days after the festival ended – more on that later in this post – suffice it to say things were already a little harder to navigate.

For everyone that wants to read about my experience with the work, read on!

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Food Wars: Postmortem

Posted by Cindy on October 2nd, 2010

A couple of days ago, Edmonton food blogger Sharon Yeo made a great post about Visualeyez on her blog Only Here for the Food.

It’s great to read a take on the festival from someone who’s connected to the food world more than the art world, and it’s nice to hear that she really got into the art!

She’s not the only foodie getting into Visualeyez this year; as Sharon notes, Carla from the Junction Bar and Eatery stopped by to take in Food Wars by Naufús Ramirez-Figueroa and Manolo Lugo, and was conscripted into service covering the Guatemalan cake with fondant.

- - Naufús Ramirez-Figueroa assembles his cake - -

Food Wars brought out the best – and worst – in Visualeyez’s audiences this year, provoking thoughtful conversation, enthusiastic over-indulgence, pleasant dinner company, and yes, voter misconduct.

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Everything I need to grow I learned in Kinder/Garden

Posted by Cindy on October 1st, 2010

Every day of the festival when I arrived at the gallery, after plugging my computer in and dropping everything off at my couch-station in the reception area, the first thing I would do is check in on the performances in the gallery spaces. First I would look into the black rice bowl of Chun Hua Catherine Dong’s Hourglass performance to see how much work had been done since I was last there.

For the first few days, I was quite distraught at how slowly the work was going; it always looked like a few dozen grains had been completed but no more. Finally by the last couple of days of work, I could see that the grains of rice had started to pile on top of one another – she was far from covering the bottom of the bowl, but the bowl was also far from empty. The work pretty much went, in this way for the first few days, exactly as expected: a futile task earnestly undertaken, seeming never to get anywhere even as the artist spent whole days working.

As the week wore on, Chun Hua Catherine seemed to be in the gallery less and less, though I know that she was always working the appointed hours; the reason she seemed to be working less is that random people were working more and more – somehow this work had compelled people to come and paint even when the artist was not there – even when the gallery was closed. Catherine and I had a brief conversation about this. She told me that in her mind, the most successful performance is one where there is no performer at all. She was pleased and surprised at how this performance played out, that people were compelled to assist – to perform the work – even in her absence. I agree with her, and I think this project will give her a lot to think about in her broader practice, in ways that she may not have expected.

The second thing I did every day was to spend time in the Culinary Cultures in the Kinder/Garden space, to see what was new and what sort of experiments would be going on that day. Alison Reiko Loader (and, when she arrived a couple days later, Kelly Andres) worked all day every day in the space, and quite the opposite to Chun Hua’s performance which seemed never to progress, their space was constantly evolving, changing, and – ahem – growing.

- - Alison gets some help from Rob installing the kitchen lab - -

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Food Wars: Menu

Posted by Cindy on September 23rd, 2010

Now that the dust has settled on the Food Wars scandal, there’s time to stand back and reflect on the meals created by Mexican artist Manolo Lugo and Guatemalan born artist Naufús Ramirez-Figueroa.

These meals were so decadent and over the top it was clear the artists were earnest about competing for top spot in the hearts and stomachs of the audience!

This post will be updated later today to include photos, so come back soon!

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Visualeyez FOOD: more meals

Posted by Cindy on September 22nd, 2010

Last night, the remaining artists at the festival went out one last time with staff and volunteers, to Dadeo cajun/creole restaurant on Whyte Avenue.

In attendance were Beau Coleman, Alison Reiko-Loader, Vicki Wong, Robin Lambert, Brette Gamel, Chun Hua Catherine Dong, Heather Challoner, Catherine Kuzik, Todd Janes, Jamie Hamaguchi and me! (You can see that though everyone is still having a lot of fun, some people are getting awfully exhausted by this point in the festival!)

Alison had been talking about trying to find a good Alberta beef steak while she was in town, but this was her last night. Someone suggested she go for steak and eggs this morning and a great conversation ensued about the best place to find steak and eggs in the not-too-late morning on a weekday in Edmonton. I enlisted the help of festival breakfasters Robin and Brette, who recommended Alison try Tasty Tom’s. After weighing her options (including the sleeping-in or getting up super early to do breakfast before her flight home), Alison decided to have just a light snack at Dadeo and go out for a steak dinner later in the evening. I offered to go with her.

Alison, Jamie and I walked around on Whyte Avenue for a few hours after Dadeo, shopping and browsing. Alison found a couple of antique cookbooks for souvenir gifts (oops; I hope her husband isn’t reading this before she gets home!) and we all found some really nice clothes and shoes which we couldn’t afford.

Then we went downtown to Lux, which had been recommended as a great local steakhouse. Walking in, we knew it was perfect! We made a beeline for the big old steakhouse-style booths!

We both had steak, and shared potatoes and mushrooms (and shared the amazing pecan fritters for dessert!)

We talked well into the night about art, food and our lives, and had to be kicked out when they were trying to lock up. Back at the hotel, Alison and I entertained each other with our favorite Youtube videos and funny picture websites.

Her best pick: Pinup Robert Downey Junior

My best pick: Selleck Waterfall Sandwich

It was hard to say goodbye, but now that there are no more pesky artist to distract me, I can get back to some real serious art blogging!

Food Wars: Round 3

Posted by Cindy on September 19th, 2010

Dessert round!

Dessert was honestly not the highlight of the evening, but not because it wasn’t good. The rest of the dinner was so overwhelmingly creative and delicious that dessert was just the topper to a fabulous meal! (The topper, I might add, which tipped most of the audience over from full to uncomfortably stuffed.)

Naufus’ cake turned out really well, which was important to me because I had a personal investment in it.

People are still trickling into the gallery and eating what is left of the food. I’ll be curious to talk to them to see if their opinions of the food are different from those I’ve talked to already, since they’ll ostensibly be eating the less popular food that still remains on each table.

The gallery has pretty much cleared out. I’m sort of disappointed to see that people were much  more eager to eat the food than to find out which country wins the competition, though I have to say that most people I talked to as they were leaving expressed that they’d be glued to the blog waiting for the results!

I’ve had a hard time deciding who I think will win the competition. I mean, I hard a very hard time deciding who I wanted to vote for. Most other people I talked to also had a hard time, but when push came to shove, they all had good reasons for their vote.

We’re talking about waiting to announce the winner until the feedback session later tonight, since so many people are gone now. It’s hard to know if people will come back at 8:00, but come on! The crowning of the winner is going to be the most exciting part!

Stay tuned for photos!

Waiting for the war to start…

Posted by Cindy on September 19th, 2010

I just got back from getting a rooibos london fog (sans vanilla) and a bagel at Credo to tide me over until Food Wars starts.

They’re really great there and have provided much-need coffee support to the festival. Plus, their latte foam is completely unparalleled!

There are so many people in the gallery today! All of the artists have gotten to know each other, and the staff and volunteers. We’re all one big family now, and people are starting to feel like it’s all coming to an end already.

I’m going to go jump in to the socializing now, and shut the laptop for a while.

Hunger wars!

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!

The Salt of the Earth

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.

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