Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Life Aquatic

The green mountains
Tell me
To live silently.
The blue skies
Tell me
To live flawlessly.
Cast away your greed
And remove your anger,
And live like water
And like wind,
And go.

--Master Naong (1320-1376)

We are saying our good-byes and letting go of each other, but we each contain residues of one another in our streams of consciousness. I began with bottles of water and so shall I end. I will be wrapping up and taking home two souvenir water bottles from Rita Kamacho's performance. One says "love" and the other "gratitude". We were encouraged to take them home and fill them up, meditate on those words and use the water in our daily lives--to drink, to wash, to bathe. I have two other souvenir bottles I keep on my bathroom shelf. One is a bottle of spring water from a tiny hamlet called Springwater Saskatchewan, and the other is from a performance artist named "nation" in Glasgow. That bottle is filled with water from the river Clyde, and reminds me of my love for that vital city.

Surprisingly, Rita Kamacho's piece, as described by Todd Janes below reminded me of death, and how our bodies are constantly being renewed by the water cycle, right down to the cellular level. I was thinking how that instead of ashes being the main concern of a funeral as the remains of a beloved, it should really be the image of water.

Shall we gather at the virtual river? I don't enter the hot tub of Face Book, fearing it might all go viral. I eschew the chatter of Twitterfalls. Performance artists do need a home at the Canada Council as Todd stated below and I think it's time we did develop some kind of online forum that works as a gathering place and gets us working towards the sustainability of the art form. I also hope for an online performance journal of some kind so that more people have opportunities to write about performance.

Finally, I want to thank everyone at Latitude 53 for working so hard to create such a wonderful festival. I hope you all get some spa time soon!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Megan Morman: Cooler

Megan Morman has packed up her cooler and left the building. I am bereft. I have become very attached to seeing her raise her eyebrows as she jots in her secret little notepad. I miss her sweet, mischievous giggle. After all, creating mischief is what Megan came to the Visualeyez festival to do. I'm also totally addicted to her blog. Like candy, gossip can be addictive and we know it's not always good for us even though it's so much fun.

The artist installed a water cooler in the front foyer of Latitude 53 among the comfy couches and crocheted pillows. She left out bowls of candy to lure in her subjects. (It worked.) Megan's spot-on sense of parody nailed the tone of the celebrity tabloids, web sites, and tv shows she mined for this project. She has an amazing work ethic, literally working 12 hour days during the festival to create her slick, web-savvy blog.

Megan and I both came from small, midwestern towns where it's easier to gossip than it is to do just about anything else. The essential topics in small towns are birth, deaths, marriages, affairs, and divorces (as opposed to the nasty details of celebrity gossip which include cellulite, sexual peccadillos and sartorial slobbery). Life in a small town becomes blatantly transparent, which is why many of us leave for the comparative anonymity and freedom of life in an urban center. (The irony is that we kind of miss the connections between people. I do, anyway.) Once Megan entered the realm of the art world she was surprised at how vicious artists, art writers, curators and administrators could be. In fact, one time Megan got into trouble herself for a disgruntled posting she made on one of her blogs. It all ended in tears, as these things sometimes do.

Having Megan and the festival made us all hyper aware of what we said about other people who weren't in the room at the time. "Will Megan write about that," we wonder? "Was that just a mean thing to say?" In the end we trusted her judgement and sometimes she was asked to change things to protect people's anonymity, which she did without hesitation. It was not her intention to hurt people.

In my conversations with the artist she talked about her interest in how artists raise their profile in the community. How does one go from being off-radar or even "box office poison" to being the sexy hot performer on the circuit--the "it" boy or girl? Is it achieved bad boy (or girl) style by doing something so outrageous it sends tongues wagging across the nation, or is it when one just does a bad performance? (We all have nightmares about the latter.) Do we become the object of someone's jealousy, fetishistic desire, or ire? After all, much of contemporary art is about fetishizing something.

By raising the participants of this festival to pseudo-super star level, Morman parodies the voyeuristic gaze that performers crave and fear at the same time. The wonderful thing about her piece is that we all had fun playing the game ourselves, making up imaginary scenarios and trying to convince Megan to post them. One day a set of word magnets mysteriously appeared on the bathroom stalls. Custom-made my Megan Morman, they contained our names and racy words that enabled anyone in the bathroom to construct rumors. This reminds us that yes, gossip is intentionally constructed, crafted from fantasies and oral stories passed from person to person. They are dynamic, unpredictable, and generally erode over time.

Morman's piece made us even more aware of the social nature of our art, especially within the context of this particular festival where performers are encouraged to stay for the entire time to engage in social and critical dialogue. Remember the French immersion exchanges from the Trudeau era? Like that, only the language is performance art. It's a truly elucidating and humbling experience to see the work of your peers at this festival, especially the senior artists who maintain a lively engaged practice in the era of a conservative government. Furthermore, the conversations among the artists and curator help to create solidarity, critical feedback, and evolve the practice. It's the talk around the water cooler and the table at Boston Pizza that keeps us grounded and builds trust so we can give critical feedback to each other.

Do check out Cooler. It's a hoot! I hope it never ends.

T.L. Cowan: The Twisted She Project

What a swell party we had! The audience piled into the gallery and just kept on coming. The audience was presented with a choice of Evian mineral water or a large shot of vodka with a wedge of lemon or lime. The glasses were identical. One knew upon tasting the liquid in the glasses placed in front of the Belvedere vodka bottles, it was the real thing. (Apparently those shots disappeared quickly.) What you choose to hydrate your body with can make all the difference.

The stage was set up as in the installation, with video projections on two walls and a vanity dresser painted white in the far corner. The pink lacy dress that had hung in the corner was missing. After the crowd stuffed itself into the venue and Todd gave the artist and her collaborators a lovely introduction, T.L. Cowan appeared in the strapless pale coral dress. She told me that it was unusual for her to wear something that didn't immediately identify her as a queer artist. She often wears punk-influenced boots, nylon stockings, or something that is different from a "tall skinny white woman in a dress". She said that this dress and her lack of heavy makeup made her feel "naked."

Cowan writes from a queer feminist perspective about the fluidity of gender and sexual orientation, the life of a "Twisted She." The first poem Cowen reads called "Ballad of She" is based loosely on a Dorothy Livesay poem "Ballad of Me" from The Unquiet Bed (Toronto Ryerson Press, 1967). Cowan's poem is about a girl who looks like a boy and keeps running away from home which stigmatizes her as being abnormal. We admire the child who has the bravodo to test the boundaries of her existence, just as we admire the way Cowan as an adult pushes the limits of limitations and definitions contemporary society tries to delineate, set, and fix.

It's hard for me to cherry-pick phrases out of a living body of text like that of TL Cowan's but here I am, choosing a few lines among many that resonate. It's impossible for me to create the artist's line breaks properly here, so my apologies.

How can I encourage you to imagine my wet, hard nipples drenched in fantasy, while I am sitting here without a webcam and you are all the way over there, without my soup to keep you warm.

The "you" and "I" in the poem called "You think I talk like a girl?" are confusing, and they are meant to be open and ready for you to plug in the genders your imagination brings to the poem. Cowan talks about the banal aspects of having sex on a water bed, juxtaposed with questions about what specific sexual gestures the subjects in the poem will choose to perform.

What if I put my leg over here?

Is that better?

She talks about sweat stains, politics, expectations, finances, grammar, and love. It's like an entire relationship or many relationships shrunk and condensed and distilled into into one poem. The tone is sexy, self-deprecating, at times mocking, and sometimes unexpectedly earnest. In this way the audience enters into the poem because there are so many facets to it. It contains us like water.

"Rachel and Amy" describes a tenuous friendship between two childhood friends, one with a conventional family and Rachel, who is a lesbian punk musician in Vancouver. In contrast to "You think I talk like a girl," the gender and sexual orientation lines out drawn out loud and clear. I don't want to give away the ending, but it left me wondering what would have happened if the sexual orientation roles had been reversed.

"Serenity: A twenty-seven step program for class-transitioning women in their thirties who are torn between an attachment to the street cred of being a dirt bag and the desire for beautiful kitchens and nice clothes."

The artist presents a meditation on dealing with the pull towards a higher standard of living as she get older. She fantasizes about a heist or forcing someone to sign over their inheritance to her and ends on a calm note of acceptance. She doesn't pull any punches with the language in this poem:


This is your material existence: your best friend's privilege will sodomize your heart.




there is a hole in your chest for the purpose,
puckered shyly behind your left nipple.

"Red" is a delicious poem about an almost ménage a trois--two women and one man. A man and a woman are having coffee and their anxieties pop out like thought bubbles in a graphic cartoon. Then to make matters worse, the woman each of them has been having sex with for weeks drops in to join them. The tension builds. Later, the second woman gossips about the original couple, saying that they are "perfect for each other" and "tedious in bed."

Her tampon has dropped and she is probably leaking
and his erection is growing even though he is hot.

"This is a picture of me" is my favorite poem of the night. Cowan presnts us with a blank slide show of pictures from her life. She shows us a picture of the "tights that failed," and reminisces about "ripping out the sagging crotch with my teeth". All the "slides" are blank, but presented as if each one of them were real. She shows us a succession of skating costumes: hoola girl, Christmas tree, Teddy Bear. She shows us the photo of her grade five class photo where she is taller than the teacher.

"These are the pants, white cotton, that were left at our front door one

From baptism and communion to her first photo of a lesbian, we laugh in empathy as a human, fluid and unformed in identity, gradually taking on confidence and wisdom as she gets older, but still with that same sense of mischief, humour, and vulnerablity that mark her as a truly adventurous spirit.

"Helen" is an excruciating poem about a dysfunctional woman. Time slows down and we become painfully aware of a body alone and challenged beyond its capacity to function. It brings alive our worst fears. "I would write you a nature poem" is a satire on poems the poet doesn't quite get around to writing.

The performance ends with "Wash me", a serene erotic poem that ties the performance directly into the aquatic theme of the Visualeyez festival.

Let me float, she said.

Her lover held her naked body in the lake, straightened the bends and tipped her head back, chin towards the sky. Held her steady---cheeks, lips, nipples, ribs, and knees slightly breaking the surface--sure hands just holding her up and then vanishing into the lake, leaving her with water lapping in her ears, a hot sun, a slight breeze blowing goose-bumps on exposed flesh.

The musical soundtrack is composed and performed by the collaborators Jan Olesen (bass), and Mickey Vallee (accordian and electronic) is very successful in that it adds background texture, tension and atmosphere to the performance without overwhelming the text. The imagery created by kellY bollen is subtle and ghost-like with overlapping and dissolving images of hands, hearts, and a young girl. The images on the centre wall created by Elaine Wannechko are ambiguous vegetable/human skin/netting projections. In a feedback session on Sunday the collaborators described how they worked to integrated all the elements of the piece with Kristen Hutchison acting as devisor/third eye.

I can testify that an evening with T.L. Cowan is a good night out and I hope we get to see her performing more often. It made me nostalgic for the women's performance festivals that have been lost along the way. Maybe someone like Cowan can help lead a revival.

The Party's Over

Yes, the pools have been drained, the water cooler is dry and the circus is packing up to leave town, but the blog is still live for a while longer as we have a few more entries to post. So don't delete your link just yet, as there is more on its way, and there's a bit of party food left over in the fridge here at Latitude 53.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Relational Rita

As I began the walking trek with Rita Kamacho late this morning, I watched carefully how nervous she appeared to be. She is small in stature but full of presence - in that gentle way that knocks you on your bum.

I have to admit that I was tickled to be watching Rita's performance as I love relational performances, which I would define as intimate encounters between the artist and their collaborators (e.g. the audience, the other person, the recipient). I do also admit freely that all of these words are cumbersome to explain the partnership - but awkwardly deficient in their moniker as while the artist often begin the exchange, their can be - dare I write magical things that come out of it, especially when the person engages and switches an really gets into the interchange with the artist.

We arrive at Beaver Hills House Park and Rita parks her wheelbarrow filled with small glass bottles, corked, and labeled.The people gather around form a semi-circle - completed by the bar of spigots that in summer shoot out a small water fall in the park. Rita tells us about the way in which vibrations can change water's molecular shape. (Masaru Emoto) She asks each of us to take one bottle marked LOVE and one marked GRATITUDE and to think about the word that is labeled in the small bottle; say it out loud; and use the water for a special occasion. After a few minutes Rita tells us that she will go bother others with her message and physical things to connect with people in the park. As people group together and chat I am struck by our colse knit community of repeat attendees, staff, volunteers, and artists - a beautiful group and how we connect as communities from near and far and how important it is to see the work of other artists and to absorb their actions, thoughts and intentions. This is integral to Visualeyez and I am happy.

As I try to do as much as possible during the festival I stay for the entire performance - perhaps not always visible, but definitely there - a trick learned from Paul Couillard - one of many. There have been times this year where have not been there for an entire performance - or in the case of Micheal and Jason, missed completely, this unsettles me and I try to find ways of maneuvering these feelings into positive action.

I watch Rita as she gently places the glass bottles into cardboard white boxes and I am reminded of traditional wedding cake - often a fruit cake! That is cut up and placed in boxes and often mailed to guests and sometimes eaten on the first anniversary. It is true too that I associate food with many things - but family and friend gatherings always involve food. I feel that it is often about the sharing and the prop for conversation, for learning, for sharing, for caring, and for giving and receiving. Rita's one-on-one or one-on-two interactions are with generosity and interest by the people she approaches and engages with. I feel that her actions are gentle and focused on a way that as she leave the people - they are smiling and have a certain gaze of peacefulness in their eyes. I am again pleased to bear witness and grateful that Rita bothered these people.

Heads Up!

Rita Kamacho is preparing for her piece called Vibrations Imprints which is ongoing from noon to 2 pm in Beaver Hills House Park. Tonight's closing party starts at 7 pm, with your truly performing along with Juliana Barbarbas, and the musician Michael Rault will perform a 45 minute set at nine pm. Drinks will be served (cash bar) featuring cocktails made with Belvedere Vodka.

Get the latest breaking pseudo celebrity gossip from Megan Morman.

Renato Vitic Walks on Water

Yesterday Renato Vitic lead us on an art walk through the city center streets. Walking on Water was presented at Visualeyez as part of a show at the Art Gallery of Alberta called The New Flaneurs curated by Marcus Miller. We gathered at the entrance to the gallery and discovered the artist wearing a distinctive red and white checkerboard suit. He was a walking traffic sign. To introduce the piece, Vitic emphasized that the audience helps to create an art walk, that the participants become performers.

The artist had mapped out the journey ahead of time and gave us various facts about water in Edmonton and beyond. He peppered his talks with profound quotes about water carefully chosen for each site and set activities for the audience along the way.

"Sanitation is more important than independence."

The first stop on Vitic's tour is a storm sewer. Apparently there are 60,000 storm sewers in Edmonton, none of them adorned with art, as they often are in other cities. The artist wryly pointed out there is potential here for some creativity--(Vancouver has a lot of sewer art, in fact they add more every year.) Speaking about the importance of treating sewage, Vitic stated that one out of six people in the world doesn't have clean drinking water.

The audience was asked to put one arm on the shoulder of the person in front of them. Thirty people snaked in a conga line, exploring the concept of "flow" lead by a man in a checkerboard suit in and around the pillars of the buildings. We created quite a spectacle. Spectators laughed and some even tried to join in the fun.

The second stop on the journey was the pool at city hall, which had recently been turned off and drained. Vitic knows his statistics: apparently every year the city of Edmonton disposes of two million litres of water from its public pools and fountains. Wowza. The good news is that since 2005 they have started to de-chlorinate the water and used it to irrigate city parks and green spaces. Next, Vitic had the crowd form a big circle in the pool, the circle changes, mutates, until it becomes the symbol of infinity.

"Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless, like water. If you pour water into a cup it becomes a cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water my friend."
--Bruce Lee

The next feature we headed for was the Epcor fountain. The festivities for Edmonton's AIDS walk were in full swing, so we pinned on red ribbons as we listened to the artist talk about the issue of the corporate management of water and the history of water in its use in monuments. He told the story of the doomed emperor Nero who created an artificial lake in the center of Rome as a symbol of his power. The artist told people to get into groups of three and he used velcro to strap their legs together. Vitic instructed the teams to be like water and move to the other side of the square together. Hilarity ensued.

Always leave something to wish for; otherwise you will be miserable from your very happiness."
--Baltsan Graciau

Now we headed for a fountain inside the Citadel Theatre. The artist talked about the mythology of fountains and gave us each a Icelandic Kronar to throw into the pond to make a wish. He wanted to use a coin that was under five cents that featured aquatic imagery and this cod-adorned coin fit the bill.

Sometimes if you stand on the bottom rail of a bridge and lean over to watch the river slipping slowly beneath you, you will suddenly know everything there is to be known."
--Winnie the Pooh

Now we crossed Jasper Avenue and stood facing the North Saskatchewan River which the artist tells us originates from the Saskatchewan Glacier on the Columbia Icefields and flows across the Prairies into Lake Winnipeg. It used to be a major fur-trading route until the railway supplanted that role. Vitic asked us to write positive quotes about water on pieces of bristol board to carry on our journey. He helped us staple them to sign boards along the way. As soon as we started walking with the signs, an occasional person in a car would start yelling at the group. Fear of those who want to go against the flow?

This is where I ran out of space on my camera. Mea Culpa.

Water needed to produce the following food items:

potatoes: 103 litres/kg
wheat: 185 l/kg
corn: 289 l/kg
rice: 393 l/kg
soybeans: 412 l/kg
beef: 20, 663 l/kg

We headed up to the Sobey's grocery stored where Vitic talked about the role of water in the production of food. He asked us to explore the concept of flow once again by having us walk a half a block in fifteen minutes. This got the attention of the Sobey's employees who started snapping photos with their cell phones. Curious bystanders asked me what was going on. One man who was going to ride his bike of the sidewalk had to stop and take another route. The surreal slowness of movement suggested evaporation. There was a race at the finish line to see who could come in last.

Our final stop was another dry fountain, this time at Beaver Hills House Park, a fountain somewhat hidden and integrated into the landscape, meant to honour the local Aboriginal community. Ironically there was a sign saying the water was not suitable for swimming or bathing in. "Hey," called a woman on the grass, Can I play checkers?" "Maybe," say Renato, and then he let out a hearty laugh.

Finally we ended to tour by having a chat on the patio of Latitude 53, where we were served fine mineral water. "There aren't many professional walkers," Vitic said to me. "It's an activity for amateurs." I asked what he meant and he told me about a kind of Buddhist religion where the monks walk constantly, with a goal to walk virtually circumnavigate the circumference of the earth. He says that there are people who walk behind them to prop them up when they are sleeping. Vitic also said that its an activity that goes across class structures. I liked the accessibility of his walk. It's something that drew in an interesting cross-section of people and the structure was loose enough that you could converse and meet new people so it became a real social event. Also, it was something you could opt in or out of at any time.

To be a tourist in your own town is something I love to play at, and art walks are a great vehicle for seeing the everyday in a new way. The Ministry of Walking in Calgary, of whom Vitic is a member, is interested in making people aware of pedestrian culture, and maybe even luring them out of their cars to walk more often and appreciate their environment in a more human way. The implications of art walks are sometimes subtle: the effects trickle down into our bodies and brains and alter the flow of information and attention in ways we might not be conscious of. Some of its poetry percolates into the groundwater of our minds for many weeks later.