Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Reframed Refain - post performance musings

Recently I undertook a collaborative performative response to a show at the Art Gallery of Alberta titled 'Leaving Olympia'. The original show was designed to give context to a show of Polaroid studies by Attila Richard Lukacs, and our show was an expansion of that historical context. Details on our performance can be found at:


There is a convergence happening here, and to explain it I must also refer you to the following:


Now why would I send you to a memorial site when writing about my own live art work? Anyone who knew Gilbert and knows me will understand, but for those whom the reference is more oblique, I will give some context:

When I met Gilbert 17 years ago, we were both yet outside the art world in terms of our future relationships to it. Yet even then, he brought an engagement to the world, to politics local and global, to entertainment and to living in general that was influential on me and many others.

When I later undertook seamline as a live art work, Gilbert was one that I thought about, and what he might say or think about the work. And when I was leading up to this work at the AGA, it was Gilbert's thoughtful and considered opinion that I most wished would be present, although he was already missing and ultimately gone. While there are others who were more directly mentored and influenced by Gilbert (and others whose presence I longed for in the work), I can not imagine working or writing now without him being a part of my thoughts, and so all that follows bears his mark.

Some comments that have stood out during and post performance are telling:

"We are surprised that the AGA gave permission to this work".

"The closer I got to you in the space, the less nude you became".

"The longer I sat with the work, the less I noticed the fact that you were nude".

"This really pushed boundaries for me, but I felt I needed to stick with it for as long as I could".

When asked about how I felt about the piece and its successes and failures, I respond in the following way - this piece is very specific to this time and place in history. In many other cities and institutions, appearing nude in a gallery space would be, to be honest, blasé. But here, in Edmonton, where nude statues never mind live nude people are shunned and defaced, it seemed important to point to a broader history, to underline how long and intelligently people have been engaging the nude as a political and social statement, challenging norms and pushing boundaries.

I found the level of engagement of our audience to be diverse and satisfying in its diversity. Some saw Kristen and I as snobs (!!!!!!! But I am so working class, I wanted to cry!), others found the work to add greatly to their experience of the Leaving Olympia show as a whole. All in all, I am grateful to have been granted the opportunity to conduct this research and engage with both the show and the AGA public to this degree.

In writing this, I realize that while I was trying to expose and negate my 'otherness' on many levels (daughter of a dark skinned, accented man raised in northern Alberta, female, bisexual, working class) the one 'othering' factor in my life that I did not confront is my history of mental illness. Like Gilbert, I have faced depression and suicidal thoughts and tried a variety of treatment strategies. Unlike Gilbert, I was able to emerge on the other side of that battle alive. What I recognize in the face of his departure is that to honour both his memory and my own past, I must include that component of my life, in an effort to break down yet another stigmatized aspect of post modern life.

I considered not doing this performance because of that part of my history. Was I prepared to face an unknown public in this seemingly vulnerable state? Could I handle the consequences? Would the aftermath be untenable?

What I learned was that there is specific and visceral power in bringing difficult issues to light. While sitting across from my collaborator in an entry way of the space, we noticed that most people felt it necessary to ask our permission to pass. There was enough space for them. And even those that did pass between us apologized as they did so (ah, Canadians). At one point I looked at Kristen and said 'So much power! Who knew?".

In the end, I am glad I made the choice to do the piece, and that so many people were able to experience it. It may have been specific to this time and place, but it was and is valid - my thanks to all those who supported and contributed.

My extra special thanks to Kristen Hutchinson, without whom this work would not have succeeded. Her participation as a performance art virgin (yes, her first live art piece ever! What a bar to have set!) added and expanded the piece beyond my wildest expectations, and I am honoured to have worked with her. I look forward to revisiting the work once we have viewed the footage, and welcome your comments and observations throughout.

Rest in peace, Gilbert. You are and will continue to be missed for a long time to come.

All the best,

The Line


TMCPhoto said...

I've always admired and to a certain degree felt a little intimidated by your ability to address your "otherness" by exposing yourself so fearlessly. I think there is a certain amount of intimidation felt by a fully clothed person when confronted with nudity.

Speaking as the daughter of an Albertan oil field worker raised in a home of conservative views my thoughts are that defacing a nude statue is equal to blasting a hate-filled anonymous comment on someones blog or in a forum post, people feel free to say and do things they wouldn't normally do in person. It is easy to be destructive when you can be faceless.

The Line said...

So true - thank you for sharing your perspective. It seems we share some commonalities in our histories.

jen alabiso said...

I was sorry to miss you at the AGA - work took me out of town...

this writing is a beautiful memorial and wonderful testament to Gil - he will be missed, SORELY, not least for his tireless good spirit.

i've thought of you often these past few weeks - it was you and liz lepper who kept me up to date on Gil's situation - etherially as it were...and i'm grateful for that. i hope you're breathing, seeing the safety nets in your own life. thanks, so much, for sharing THIS.

AGA said...

Being a friend to naked people everywhere, I’m sorry I missed this. of course there’s naked and there’s nude, as some old clark once said, and my bets are that this was very much Nude. Either way – the history of Western art since ancient Greece might very well be construed as a tug-of-war between classical humanism (naked) and the big guy (monotheism). We seem compelled to oscillate between Nature and Eden, and that may not be all bad – after all – where would we be without a little repression?

Marcus Miller

The Line said...

Ah, Marcus. Well said. I suspect the answer to your question is ... bored. Perhaps we would be bored. That, to me, would be a special kind of hell.

Thanks for commenting - and yes, it would have been wonderful to have you there. Oh, I long for portals and teleporters...


Allison said...

One of the things that I find very intriguing about the work you and Kristen did was the aspect of vulnerability. This came to mind as I was reading your writing on Gilbert and referring to your own struggles with mental illness (with which I empathize).

There's a clear vulnerability in being nude in any kind of public place -- but there is also a vulnerability for many viewers in an institutional space like a gallery.

Your comment about feeling upset that a viewer thought you were snobs was very interesting. When I used to work for a small city gallery, whenever we had anything more "contemporary" and "oblique," often viewers would come out of the exhibition space angry. Talking with one of these people while I was on the desk, I thought: this person is angry because they don't get this art, and it makes them feel stupid, which makes them feel vulnerable.

Galleries are "finished" spaces, in which the work we present has an aura of (high) culture -- we never ask the question of the general viewer, "Did this artwork work?" We say, "See how important this is." And even with contextual handouts, etc. I have seen people still feel that they are stupid for not having enough knowledge to get it straight away. To me, vulnerability is very much on a viewer's part.

And so I think the idea of embodying others' performances is pretty great. There is something there about a viewer getting to say their opinion directly to you that I think is powerful. (Even though you're not a recording; you are affected by their comments or judgment.)

I also am interested in the layers of vulnerability you are revealing through the piece and through your writing on this.

Thanks for writing a really good tribute to Gilbert and a great jumping off point for us.

The Line said...

Allison, I am so glad you have contributed to this stream. Would you agree that the ability of direct feedback reduced the vulnerability of the audience members?

One of the major themes in my previous works has been a 'politics of care', in which I attempt on varying levels to ease or shift the 'burdens' of my audience. This piece felt like a possible departure but in the end I think it follows that thread.

We are far from the first to employ this strategy of re-making/re-mixing performances. Marina Abromavic did a series of seven recreations in 2007/2008. I participated in a similar event at the Western Front where eight of us did our version of Interior Scroll (different again from what I did at the AGA, which was to read a phrase that had been translated in to binary code). This event taught both Kristen and I a lot about the vulnerabilities of the original pieces, too - for example, the reality of being nude and cold in a public space that amount of time, the frustration that must have been experienced by the models in the Vanessa Beecroft piece and the gendering of participation in the Michael David Jones re-creation of 'Define Me' - where except for one man, only women wrote on my body.

This idea of letting our foibles and scars show (goodness knows, I am covered in scars, literally. Life as a kid on an acreage covered in barbed wire fences), and not apologizing for that is one that I need to consider further. You have given a lot of food for thought - thank you!

Allison said...

That is a good question, whether people feel less vulnerable when they can say their piece -- in this case, to the piece, as it were.

I think it does make some difference to state it directly; it also would be harder for me to speak than to leave an anonymous comment in a guest book, or to actually just talk about it w/ friends after. I guess it's a negotiation, that is happening in the moment, so isn't totally set in roles, but influenced by a bunch of different factors.

Maybe that is another layer of vulnerability inherent in art, whether presented 'officially' in a gallery space or not -- that everything is uncertain. As a performer or viewer, you can't predict the responses.

The Line said...

Art theorist and historian Jeanne Randolph positioned psychoanalytic theory as a subsection of art (creative production) in her 1983 essay "The Amenable Object"(found in a collection called 'Psychoanalysis and Synchronized Swimming' from YYZ books). In her discussion of Winnicott's use of the term amenable, she argued that art, as an amenable object, needed to be accessible to the audiences interpretations, that the artist had to allow space for that in the work once it had left the state of production. I think you would find the essay compelling, and her bold re-purposing of Freudian thought refreshing.