Tuesday, September 22, 2009

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.

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