Sunday, June 10, 2007


This year’s Visualeyez Festival took as its thematic the notion of the city, which became a departure point for performance works challenging habitual assumptions and perceptions of how bodies encounter urban landscapes. In particular, many artists sought to challenge the idea of utilizing the urban setting as a stage or proscenium to be encountered by a festival audience. The performances exhibited a tendency to augment and generate systems and relations flowing within networks already present in the city. In this sense, many of the works created mutually parasitic relations, adding to the various urban systems without destroying them. Most of the works sought to leave little disruption and did not explicitly embrace overt political tactics.

The parasitic relation differs from the expected performer/audience or performance/site relation in that it doesn’t function independent of its host. For example, Nicole Fournier’s guerrilla gardening was playful and unobtrusive as we planted green spaces in abandoned lots and harvested plants from a parking lot. Amber’s strategic appropriation of the marketing iconography on Whyte Avenue to legitimize her “Amber” product line, was similarly playful. Lori Weidenhammer’s quasi-educational performance about the plight of the disappearing honey bee and Colony Collapse Disorder was surprisingly informative as it was meditative. None of these works can be distinguished from the already existent urban network in which they are presented, confusing an expected distinction between artist/audience or stage/artist. These works operate in symbiotic relation, mutually enhancing systems through dynamic exchange that cannot be reduced to cause and effect.

What makes these interventions interesting is that they question their own mode of display and function, as much as they created modes of experiencing and perceiving the city. In other words, these interventions are also operating as forms of research into strategies for developing new relations between audience and performer/artist. The tension between the expectations and conventions of artistic and cultural production are felt in the official promotion and schedule that outlines times and locations for public audiences to attend and see performance art. But in reality, audiences often were frustrated by the fact that there was nothing to see, as performances were nomadic and at times difficult to distinguish from regular occurrences. It was the accidental audience, or passersby, who often experienced the performance---but did not know it to be such. For the artists, this accidental encounter was often the most successful. Other times, the artists themselves were the main audience for the work.

Many of the artists explicitly articulated a desire to erase the ‘stage’ of performance and challenge the audience/performer relation by becoming imperceptible as performers. (This is articulated particularly in the works of Emma Waultraud Howes, Marc Couroux and Juliana Pivato, and Sara Wookey). In this way, becoming imperceptible can be seen as an extension of a parasitic relationship, where imperceptibility follows from indistinguishable separation between site and event. However, the artists’ desire to become imperceptible was subverted by the festival program schedule that listed locations, times and dates for festival audiences to attend works. The assumption that the artist/performer must be physically present during “the performance” still continues as a conventional trope in many performance art festivals and is often expected by festival audiences. This assumption is embedded in an ideology that privileges an ontological framing of performance and the physical body (championed by Peggy Phelan in the 80’s) based on notions of temporal presence. Phelan’s ontology of performance work links the work’s existence to the presence of artist and audience in the “same” temporal frame and geographical space when in fact many encounters with performance may occur through the document, as argued by Auslander. Many of the festival artists expressed the need to both create and experience the zone of indiscernability, where time and space are not fixed. This is a zone where perception is vague—the audience and performer’s roles are not formed - and things are (as noted in the intro) openly sociable: not gridlocked.

One of the issues raised in discussion with the artists was the problematic expectation that the artist’s intention match the project’s realization. Often this is the criteria by which performance and other art works are evaluated. In current discussions in the art conservation and documentation communities, the artist’s intention is often used as the benchmark by which to preserve works. The reality is that often in artistic production (as well as in documentation and conservation) the intention is often not realized in the work: something else happens. When enacting performance in the city, something else must inform the work beyond what was planned. Amber Landgraff explicitly worked with this as a conceptual premise in her work—knowing that philanthropic gestures are not always realized in practice, despite these ‘best’ of intentions. Sometimes the realization supersedes the intention. Indeed, in blogging a record of these events, something different from the artists intentions or the performance event occurs.

The festival blog, a form of urban digital sprawl itself, in some cases superseded its intention to document. Many of the performance works will be experienced by a larger audience and over a greater duration of time than the works were through the live encounter. Festival artists are aware of this fact, and many expressed an interest in this platform as an extension of their performances as self-reflective research. The performance documents, as seen in the parasitic blogs and comments reflect the processual quality of the projects. In this sense, the documentation process is utilized as a platform for processual performances. There is not the sense that the performances are finished but in the process of becoming—and this is the very quality that lends to the dynamic of research and creation or performance research.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Afterthoughts before the epilogue

The festival is over and all the artists have left Edmonton. It is really quiet in the gallery--a little eerie. Todd, Josh and I sit in the kitchen and catch up on emails. I try to correct some travel plans. If all goes as planned, I depart on Wednesday.
I will post an epilogue on the blog after I have had a week to reflect on the events some more. (I encourage those of you who want to post more comments on the blog to please feel free to do so!).

Live Dining, Nicole Fournier

Live Dining (second event) Nicole Fournier Video Still: Tagny Duff

Live Dining is a two-part performance facilitated by Nicole Fournier inviting participants to create polyculture ecosystems in the city. Polycultural agricultural systems, which feature diverse types of plants and ecosystems, have become a rarity within the rapid growth of monoculture systems that yield larger crops returns. Live Dining raises issues around the growing presence of mono-agriculture production, a mode of food production conducted in rural areas and urban sprawl that can have devastating impact on the balance of the natural environmental habitat. (This has been noted as one potential causes of the disappearance of honey bees and is discussed further in Lori Weidenhammer's work). In this work, Fournier, gallery staff, festival artists and participants work together to both harvest natural food sources in the city and create a polycultural agriculture system with both cultivated and wild plants. In both works, the ritualistic practice of eating food is performed.

The first Live Dining event takes place in a parking lot. We meet at the gallery and pick up various objects –like chairs, eating utensils, and cultivated plants for seeding. Then we walk in a procession to the parking lot a few blocks away. Nicole instructs us where to set up the table, chairs and planters. Then she shows us the different kinds of eatable plants in the parking lot, which we begin to harvest. Soon we have a pile of green eatable “weeds” on the table. Nicole invites us too cut, chop and cook the various plants and food items from the natural and cultivated plants on an electric stovetop.

We occupy the parking lot (a private space) while we cook and eat. As part of the ritual of dining we also drink wine- another illegal form of conduct. A police officer drives up to the group and asks, “what is going on”? Juliana tells him that this is part of an art festival and invites him to join us for dinner. Many of us strike up a conversation with the police officer for about 20 minutes and we talk about the current housing crisis in Edmonton—which he says is media hype. The cop soon realizes that we are not trouble, asks us to stop drinking and then drives away. We keep eating (and drinking) until everyone is full and then return to the gallery.

The second action conducted for Live Dining takes place in a vacant grassy lot located in residential neighborhood. When we arrive at the site, Nicole is there planting corn and squash according to an early Mayan polyculture design. We all help dig and plant the garden. People driving in cars and walking by stop and ask us what we doing. When we tell them we are planting a garden, they seem fine with it- even though this is obviously not our property. Nicole forages for Burdock which grows in abundance on the lot while some of us start cutting food for dinner. Again, we have set up the dining room with the electric stove to cook vegetables.

Live Dining (second event), Nicole Fournier Video Still: Tagny Duff

Both these actions conducted as part of Live Dining speak to and create sustainable agricultural practices in the urban landscape. The piece enacts guerrilla gardening and utilizes an interventionist strategy employing direct action to create green spaces and food sources in unexpected and often illegal spaces in the city. These kind of guerrilla actions seek to generate and sustain polyculture ecosystems in areas that have been neglected or perhaps mis, or under used.

Live Dining (second event) Nicole Fournier Video Still Tagny Duff

As with other guerrilla gardening innitiatives Live Dining employs a grassroots community sensibility. The gallery staff has laboured to find suitable spaces for the events, and gather the plants, materials and items needed for the event. The festival artists have harvested, planted, cut and cooked the food. The staff at Latitude and another local artist, Lance, has offered to watch the garden over time after Nicole leaves. In order to generate Live Dining and the polyculture systems it creates and comments upon, the social network system used to deploy the piece becomes an extension of the “performance”. In other words, the event of foraging, cooking and eating—is as important as the relations created in the planning and actualization of the work.

In the art context, the enactment of guerrilla gardening references earlier land art movements and, in this case, earlier Fluxus works that often employed the ritual of eating and food. All these works explicitly use collaborative working networks in order to create the work. However, the collaborative frame of this kind of community based artwork is not always fully rendered in art practices today. Conventions around accreditation that demand noting authorship (often single) often continue to be perpetuated in the context of performance art. This pretense can impede the intention of a work—particularly works that are not meant to be performances by one artists, but in fact, is created through many facilitators/enablers and participants. This is important to note. Live Dining raises questions about the role of multiple participants and their own sense of accountability to not just the “art” but to the practice of eating in everyday life.

As we know, the concept of sustainability is fore grounded in many contemporary debates regarding the state of the global environment. The Kyoto Accord emphasized the need to reduce green house emissions by 55 % from the developing countries years ago. The accord was drafted in 1997 and just started being reinforced in 2005. Many of the goals of the accord are not being met. Perhaps guerrilla gardening in inner cities is one way to prompt immediate, albeit small change to the environmental practices in cities. Nicole’s Live Dining is an attempt to bring these ideas to light though aesthetics of care- one that seeks to foster life systems. The shift in the way such environmental conscious practices are enacted also calls for a rethinking of systems of artistic collaboration and the value placed on such relations.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Sara Wookey, Walking Edmonton

Sara Wookey, Walking Edmonton

Sara Wookey’s walking performances prompt encounters with the city as a form of memory. For two days she invites people to enact a walk through the city. However, it is not necessarily the walk that is the arena of this “performance”. It is in the informal conversations with walkers after their trip that facilitate a performance in and through retrospect. The remembering and telling of events becomes exaggerated and personalized through informal exchange of memoirs. The city, in this case becomes one of memory constructed through future recollections of past experiences.

I start at the gallery. On the reception desk there is a sign that gives me an option to choose one of two papers that are folded and stapled. I choose the one that says “Directed Tour”. It invites me to take a 45 minute walk through the city. The directions tell me to walk continuously and if I reach a red crosswalk light, to cross the other side. So I leave the gallery and the tour begins.

I wander out of the gallery and walk towards Jasper Street. I relax. I have time. I give myself over to the directive constraints of walking for 45 minutes. This is strangely comforting. For the last week I haven’t had the time to wander the city. Now I relax and feel the sun on my skin and hear the conversations from people I pass by. I find myself stumbling upon the river shortly after walking through the downtown core. I walk up and down a steep set of stairs and feel my heart rate race. My mind wanders and I forget that I partaking in “a performance”. When I get back to the gallery, I realize that I have not followed the directions since I often stopped at stoplights. I think about it some more and realize that standing still is to be in motion, so perhaps I haven’t unwittingly corrupted the directions.

Walking Edmonton, Sara Wookey
Video by Tagny Duff

During the walk I hold my video camera and put it on 6 second interval record. I am not sure if I will even use the footage. I forget about the camera. When I look at it later I find it amusing that it evidences my stillness while waiting for the street lights to turn green. The pixellated quicktime video creates a different sense of rhythm than the one I experienced on the walk.

When I return, I enter back through the gallery. Sara has set up a map of Edmonton with an index of different coloured pins, each corresponding to particular signification. An orange pin connotes when something memorable occurred. A red one is noted as referencing “where you felt desire”, and a white one marks when you stopped performing the walk. People have indexed their experiences according to these markers and pinned them on the map to correlate where “it” happended. Participants have also hand written thoughts, drawings and notes based on their responses to walks onto the wall of the gallery.

My immediate response was to resist the placing of my experiences on the map. Why qualify, archive and index my sensations on a grid? For some time, that I cannot fully remember, I was off the grid. Drifting. I wandered. I was walking in the city following constraints facilitated by the artist. However, other events and sensations occurred outside of those parameters. I thought about my mother, wondered if my visa payment had gone through yet, enjoyed the sunny warm weather, watched as two people walked slowly down the long steps to the river while complaining about low back pain, and noticed a man sleeping on the bench at the river lookout point.

I meet with Sara at a coffee shop and we continue to talk about my experiences and thoughts about the walk. She tells me that she has been conducting informal follow up discussions with most of the walkers/participants. Similar to our talk, the other conversations she has had tend to be casual and informal. Stories are told and exchanged. This is as much a part of the walk, it seems, as the walk itself. The remembering of the walk becomes the dislocated site of “the performance”. The ritualistic exchange of conversation between strangers and acquaintances becomes, not only the performance, but also the performance of art histories. Oral tradition and the telling of events as one remembers them is often a means of reproducing and creating memory of performance. The construction of personal histories becomes another critical dimension of this work. The impossibility of recording events as we might think they happened and to qualify them as facts is exposed in these dialogues. This oral memory is a kind of nomadic archive that cannot be inserted into horizontal and vertical measurements outlined on a predetermined grid.

Evening of "emerging" artists' performance work

Last night we attended an evening of performance by emerging and not-so emerging artists. ( I wonder at the need to qualify artists in terms of “emerging”, “mid-career” and “ established”--- classification models usually employed by funders).

It is Gabriela Rosende’s first performance and for Jason Chinn and Katherine Krampol it is an opportunity to show and develop some new material. Then there are Julianna and Todd who have been practicing performance for years. Julianna wraps the audience up in a 250 square foot radius floorspace with rope and equates this cramped space to the allotment of living space for alternative low-income housing currently being designed in Vancouver, Tokyo and other cities at the moment. Todd Janes declares that his performance is influenced by all of us and is a personal thank you to all the artists. He eats strawberries and weeds (from Nicole’s and Irene’s performances), uses chalk from Emma’s performance, posts notes on a clothesline (reminiscent of Sara’s archive across the hall), and performs other references to his own experience as curator and artist within the context of living in Edmonton. I was particularly affected when he spoke about how the sound of a thunderstorm and rain on the prairies frightened him, as he poured baking soda over his body, and then vinegar. The chemical reaction between the soda and vinegar created a bubbling and crackling sound as the vinegar ran down his body and dropped to the floor to the sound of intense rain.

The festival is over tomorrow and so this event marks the impending end of our time in Edmonton. It is a small, personal and intimate crowd—mostly the artists from the festival, Latitude staff and board members and the gallery crowd. These kinds of gatherings- a staple in many artist-run and parallel centres in Canada and abroad- still have a grassroots ethic that encourages artists to develop ideas and work within a community of peers. This is a necessary forum for developing art practices and fostering cross-dialogue with other artists, interested publics and arts supporters. It remains me that artists are a public audience too. So often this fact is overlooked.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Digital and Urban Para-Sites

All the works to date have utilized various locations in the city as site-specific to their artistic projects. The artists use the city landscape as the medium for artistic research and performance works. Sometimes this frame is deliberately obscured and falls outside our perception of what we assume to mean the city. Assumptions of how to move and encounter the city are implicitly challenged. The preconceived notions of how bodies move through the ephemeral and physical territories demarcating city space are explicitly reconfigured.

I begin to see each artist's project as a network that expands on potential ways of reinventing the city. Emma explores the potential of expanding everyday habitual gestures articulated within the architectural framing of the downtown core of Edmonton. Amber focuses on questioning the tactical and false promises of “free” exchange in the flows of capital and personal relationships. Lori brings to light the alarming problem of disappearing bees as a result of urban sprawl and dwindling green spaces. She brings a playful analysis and solution to the issue by promising to relay messages to the bees.
Nicole re-imagines ways that natural food sources found in the cracks of parking lots and other unexpected urban spaces might be harvested. Juliana and Marc reconfigure the sound ecology of downtown Edmonton by appropriating musak. Josh brings to light the way bodies work to create relation and movement while navigating through various urban environments – from the dance club, the west Edmonton mall to the exercise club. Irene amplifies how social and private drinking generates undercurrents of violence. Jackson 2Bears illuminates strategies of digital expropriation of First Nation's archival history within the form of live urban VJ/DJ culture so prevalent in large metropolitan cities. Tomorrow I will take a walk with Sara and become a flaneur in the streets of Edmonton. On Sunday, I will participate in creating a sustainable garden designed by Nicole.

All these pieces form a mutual parasitic relation to the city. The cityscape mediates the works as much as the works mediate the city. The trace of this relation continues in the extended “digital sprawl”, as Todd so insightfully noted, on the www via the blog and website.

The parasitic relation and strategies exhibited in this festival raise some important questions. What happens when the artists leave the host city? What remains of the events and interventions? A parasite usually exchanges nutrients with the host in order to sustain itself and the host. When the parasite is removed, the host dies. In this case, the artists are concerned about not leaving the landscape depleted of resources as a result of their performances. Rather, there is an intention to produce connections that grow through person contact and accidental encounters that have occurred through the full ten days of the festival. This is made apparent by the tremendous effort everyone is making to generate parasitic links to the blog, so that the works and ideas continue to grow when the festival is offically over.

Marc Couroux and Juliana Pivato, The Fetish Character of Music and The Regression in Listening.

Marc Couroux and Juliana Pivato, Video: Couroux and Pivato
The Fetish Character of Music and The Regression in Listening

The sound ecology of each cityscape is littered with prerecorded and live ambient sound. The continuous presence of these frequencies is filtered out through selective attention, and often goes unnoticed. Often the visual is privileged as the sense of navigation, and the aural is disregarded as background or unnecessary excess information. However, the aural dimension of urban life has the potential to move bodies through spaces. For example, muzak, original and remixed versions of popular music, is a staple of urban centres. It bleeds from shop windows and mall entranceways. The constant spillage of ambient music harmonizes with the sounds of mall shoppers and street sounds. Muzak is slyly insinuated into corporate spaces to lubricate the movement of bodies. Pedestrians are soothed into contemplative window-shopping. The steady drone of muzak is intended to deter street loiterers from hanging out. It plays in the background and blends into the sounds of cars driving by, of people conversing.

Juliana and Marc roam around the downtown core in a “performance- van” – a nomadic studio- where they repurpose muzak for passersby. Curtains are strung up around the windows of the van to hide the process of production. The visual effect renders the van as a kind of inaccessible shelter. Marc and Juliana take 4 fragments, randomly generated by MAX (a computer program) from 40 Carpenters’ songs, and attempt to “smooth them out”. Marc works on the keyboard and Juliana sits with headphones and a mic that is amplified. The speakers blast the live remix of the fragmented music emitting a lyrical form of music-muzak out from the van window. This blends with the sounds and muzak that circulate around the outer parameters of urban centres, like The Bay Department Store, Shoppers Drug Mart and other such places.

In order to locate the nomadic van, Marc and Juliana have set up maps of locations and times accessible through their blog. People are invited to find the van and encounter the soundscape Marc and Juliana create. Sometimes they are found, other-times not. Like many other works in the festival, this piece is not intended for an invited audience.

The visual cue of the curtains in the van attracts more attention than the loud oddly repetitive muzak. I find it after wandering around for twenty minutes. I hear the loud sound of the Carpenters’ music and see the van across the street from The Shoppers Drug Mart on 102nd Street. At first glance, it appears as though someone is camping out in their car and listening to a cd that is skipping. Some people stop to see if there is anyone in the van. They might see Marc playing the keyboard through a crack in the curtain. Most people just walk by. The subtle articulation of the sound performance is barely perceptible. Like Emma Howes’ performance, Marc and Juliana also seek to de-emphasize the proscenium and the traditional staging of the performance of music, in order to amplify its trace. In the attempt to de-emphasize the staging, another staging occurs. In the context of Edmonton’s current media focus on the tent squats and growing issue of homelessness due to rising housing costs, the van becomes a display of nomadic shelter. This is further evidenced by the fact that they rent parking space for hours at a time in order to both rehearse and generate muzak for incidental audiences.

When I walk towards the van I am taken by the way the motion and speed of my walking gait is implicated in the growing amplitude of the sounds emitted from the van. My motion determines the volume of Juliana’s singing voice. As I walk past the van, the level increases. The frequencies are reverberated against the cement enclave of the City Centre faƧade. If I didn’t know that the van was part of the performance, then I might think that the music was coming from a speaker on the building. I look up to the cement ceiling overhangs and search for outdoor speakers, and find none. I sit on a ledge just across from the van and listen. A sentence is repeated over and over. This is not the conventional melodic repetition of chorus lines forming the structure of a popular song. This original and live remix of oddly familiar lyrics and melody is as soothing as it is irritating. I close my eyes and listen for rhythm in the glitch. I discern the sounds of the cars passing by from the flow of this madly repetitive phrasing. I try to discern the music from the ambient- as figure and ground, and realize that this muzak is embedded in the ambient environment. Rhythms that Marc and Juliana create play with the rhythms of the continuous flow of motion in the streets. These are not “dotted rhythms” as Juliana explains in one of her postings on their blog. There is difference created in this repetition. The phrase takes on another form through each re-articulation.

They are not performing for the audience, but inserting an expanding field of unexpected encounter with the frequencies we travel through everyday, perceptible and imperceptible as sound or noise. They don’t want to perform for people, or have people encounter the work as performance. Rather it is the body moving through the aural field and moving the aural field that is the performance. As each body encounters this differently, it becomes impossible to locate the “place” of this performance.

The work illuminates a substrate of time-space that we move through and create in the city, that is rarely consider as a site of performance. Often we think of site-specific work as having to take place in a space or place, at a certain time. The definition of site connotes “a location”. But in this case, I encounter an auralscape that seeps through the parameters of the the visual markers of place. When the van is no longer in my field of vision, the soundscape Marc and Juliana create becomes ubiquitous with ambient sounds of the city. I cannot locate the “place” of this aural encounter on an X/Y axis, even though they created a map to direct me to this area.