By: Karol Sienkiewicz
LIVE Biennale @ VIVO Media Arts Centre, Friday September 20, 2013.
(This article published in collaboration with Decoy Magazine)
The Vancouver LIVE Biennale’s third day of programming demonstrated the bare bones of what a performance festival usually means. Some wiggling and squirming, a pinch of audience interaction, and some old-fashioned, yet widely tolerable body art. No ingredients missing from the recipe, all courses palatable—but very few surprises. Friday night at VIVO was at times dynamic, at times an abyss of tediousness: Spielberg’s “Jaws” followed by Warhol’s “Empire”.
Five performances in three hours, two beers, no cigarettes. In the background, Gary Varro presented a durational performance in On Main Gallery, which was visible from the space’s street windows. Fellow imbibers gave him a perfunctory glance during breaks. In a nutshell, it was a huge, golden, shiny worm. It was visually attractive, and quite gruelling for the performer, I presume. The first two performances, presented by locals Lauren Marsden and John Boehme, managed to enliven the audience, who responded eagerly. The third one by Singapore’s Jason Lim, featuring candles, a tree branch, a stone, and feathers, made them sleepy. This was the calm before the storm: the grand finale by Polish duo Suka Off. But did they meet the expectations of a headlining act?
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First off, the performances of both Lauren Marsden and John Boehme investigated the very nature of performing in front of a live audience. Marsden presented a delegated performance that was an auction of the performance of the auction itself, conducted by Crystal Campbell, a professional auctioneer. It was the second performance in a series, or “edition”, of only three. And what was sold was not the performance itself, but a keepsake, a neatly framed certificate. Was Marsden trying to question the art market? If so, then she failed in the same way conceptual artists failed to produce unmarketable works half a century ago. Marsden also failed when it came to money. If I recall correctly, the estimated worth of her performance was valued at more than two grand; after half an hour of bidding, her work fetched the price of 218 dollars.
The rules the art market imposed on the performance by Marsden became a limitation. Presumably mindful of these many traps from the word go, Marsden and the auctioneer succeeded somewhere else. For me, the interest was not so much in the idea of literally auctioning off the auction, but in conducting an auction about the auction and the auctioneer. It reminded me of Jérôme Bel’s spectacles, in which a dancer talks and dances about their own dancing career. Similarly, Campbell interrupted bouts of rapid-fire bidding with poignant stories about her professional life and experience. As she switched roles from stand-up comedian to lecturer, from entertainer to auctioneer, it became apparent that in order to sell, Campbell needed to control the audience’s emotions, which she did perfectly well. However, some of her stories lacked punch lines. If, like in Bel’s case, this was a play, these small imperfections would be refined with time and the performance would really get into the groove.
Before the applause abated, another performer took the stage and continued to clap his hands. Disguised as a minor-league baseball manager, John Boehme turned the action that is supposed to follow at the end of an act into the performance itself. Clapping his hands in every possible way, Boehme managed to keep the audience in high spirits for quite a long time. They sometimes joined him in clapping, even egging him on with shouts of encouragement. Later, they simply observed him as he became more and more fatigued. It was an exercise in exhaustion. When he finally stopped, a volley of real applause thundered.
But what promised to be an interesting evening was later bogged down in a jejune performative rut. Jason Lim’s props belonged to a classic repertoire of performance festivals. His slow-motion act, beginning with the artist being pinned down by a rock and ending with the drop of a feather, was the quintessence of lofty spirituality. And a doctor could have prescribed it instead of sleeping pills. You know, it takes a lot of time for a candle to burn out. While some of the audience made their way to the bar, others were mesmerised by Lim as he motionlessly balanced a huge branch on his head. I felt stuck between a reviewer’s call of duty and my internal instinct to escape. Meanwhile—click, click, click—the photographer fired his shutter, as if he wasn’t just sitting in the front row of an art show, but also on the front line of combat. But, bent over and focused on his work, the photographer revealed his cleavage to the back seats. Finally, some food for thought. I’m saved. TGIF.
While Lee was struggling with his stones, candles, feathers and a branch, I couldn’t wait for the next act. Suka Off, billed as one-of-a-kind, were to blast off the evening’s fireworks. ‘Suka’ in Polish means ‘bitch’. But sometimes the higher the expectation, the bigger the disappointment. A man in white and a woman, who emerged naked from a black costume harnessed inside a meshed metal cage: together they jumped through hoops to maintain tension throughout their performance. Their bag of tricks included strobe lights, fluorescent paints, and baleful sounds. It all boiled down to the switch of gender roles. The woman emerged from the submissive black into the active white (she put on the guy’s white clothes at the end of the piece), while the guy shed his white attire and retreated into passivity (he ended up inside the black costume). That was all? “Jesus. Fuck,” as Bridget Jones once famously said. It was as if a skin-flick actor lost his vigour before climax. There was no climax at all.
Though the evening began with critical insight into live performance, it descended into the all-too-well-known routine. TGIF, I thought again.
All images provided by Ash Tanasiychuk, VANDOCUMENT.
Full disclosure: This article was co-edited by Stacey Ho, a staff member of LIVE Biennale and Lauren Marsden, editor of Decoy Magazine and participating artist. No significant changes to the author’s original text and opinions have been made.