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.
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…)
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.
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!
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!