By: Caitlin Chaisson Written On: September 29, 2013
LIVE Biennale @ VIVO Media Arts Centre, Wednesday September 18, 2013.
This article is published in collaboration with Decoy Magazine
The Vancouver Bach Choir (performing with Jürgen Fritz). 2013
On the sidewalk outside of VIVO on Wednesday night, a man was seated next to a table-sized block of ice. He looked rather cold for a balmy September evening and wore black cotton gloves, which he periodically removed in order to rest a bare hand atop the slab – doing so for extended lengths of time. When his circulation began to condense in purple pools, he would withdraw his frozen extremity, placing it back in a glove to warm it.
Congregating around Alain-Martin Richard’s Mediation of Natural Events was a mixed crowd of performers (betrayed by their crushed red velvet dresses and tuxedos) and patrons, passing time while waiting for the doors to open. Wednesday marked the beginning of six days of performances from international and Canadian artists for Vancouver’s eighth edition of LIVE Biennale. Alain-Martin Richard (Canada), Jürgen Fritz (Germany), Guadalupe Neves (Argentina) and Lori Blondeau (Canada) opened the festival with markedly different performances, yet each carried what I understood as an interest, to some degree, in obsessive staging. Despite beginning the evening with a meditation on the natural, the performances to follow were much more idiosyncratic, or engaged with artifice: Fritz’s repetitive rapture, Neves’ frantic digging around in the dirt, and Blondeau’s fixation with the plucking of rose petals.
The crushed velvet dresses and tuxedos belonged to the singers of the Vancouver Bach Choir, led by their conductor, and hired to co-perform with Fritz. Having just finished a performance art pre-festival workshop for the Biennale, and as co-founder of Black Market International (BMI), Fritz is an artist long familiar with collaborative practice. In its typical incarnations, collaboration frequently brings to mind the idea of ‘integration’, or a sort of fraternal partnership that involves sharing and compromising. For BMI, and Fritz in particular, collaboration is more a concern with presenting events simultaneously, in “parallel,” without forcing them to be conjunctive. This is a position I have reservations about, largely because I wonder whether collaboration is the right word. But regardless of whether it was the result of collaboration or coincidence, I was surprised to find that with this particular performance, where the artist had established a gap between the parallel acts, was in fact where I found the collaborative aspect of the work the most audible.
In a tight fist, Fritz grasped the yoke of a sizeable hand bell. He bore the instrument with his eyes closed and engaged in trance-like swaying that suggested he was not about to follow the conductor’s lead. The choir and the artist would be directing separate parts of the performance alongside one another. After several mute and motionless minutes, the choir took the conductor’s lead and began to quietly enter into song- Miserere by Henryk Górecki As I began to fall into my own relaxed state, lured by the conditioned voices, I noticed Fritz becoming even more engrossed. By the time the choir began to crescendo, Fritz’s swings had reached chest-height, and the bell began to clatter. It’s metallic sound cut sharply through the voices of the choir.
The first toll was startling. It certainly appeared to produce sound parallel to the choir’s, as opposed to one integrated, but Fritz’s genuine absorption in his movement made me hesitant to interpret the sound as obtrusive. Over and over, Fritz methodically rang out, and over and over the choir repeated the last few minutes of Górecki’s original score. The repetitive aspect, perhaps, in both the music and the tolling of the bell, seems to reflect an interest in the controlled and the conditioned musician, the audible body.
At one point during the performance, the choir stood silent while Fritz continued the bell’s cadence: raising his hand over his head in front of his eyes, then swinging it backwards to raise it over his head again. If it had been a collaboration in the typical sense, one would think of Fritz’s musical accompaniment as some sort of percussive addition- something keeping a beat. But it was quite clear that Fritz was not just maintaining rhythm in this performance, and this is where the collaborative gap, I believe, took its shape. The bell and the voice were not in harmony; the bell formed the shape of the voice, and the voice formed the shape of the bell. Parallel acts allowed for a collaboration of sound. Each performance significantly affected the other, changing the entire dynamic of the event as a whole. This was most palpable when the variables changed. At one point, the choir stopped singing; the bell sounded entirely different, though Fritz was doing the exact same motions as he had been doing before. It provided us with a moment where we could hear the influence one had had on the other.
Whereas Fritz’s performance aimed to maintain a sharp distinction between parts of the work, Neves’ performance required an uninterrupted continuity. The phrase, “no guarantee” flashed on the wall as a projected text. Neves stood at the back of the room wearing a plain white apron, her black hair draped to conceal her face. Next to her was a silver basin with white flowers planted in soil. Crouching down to reach a handle, she began to drag the object across the floor, the basin too heavy to lift. One step at a time, she headed towards the opposite corner of the room. A spool of string, whose tail was nailed to the wall, looped onto the basin. Neves moved slowly away from the wall where she had started, but the nearly invisible thread continued to literally tie her to the spot where she began. Much of Neves’ performance took on this type of metaphorical quality. Each action was delicately crafted with purpose. When she finally reached the opposite wall, she unwound the extra string, knotting it around another nail to create a line that ran from one end of the room to the other.
She sat on her knees near the basin and began to pick the flowers. Shoving them quickly into her hair and the neck of her shirt, she fashioned a haphazard wreath for a collar. When all the flowers were plucked, without hesitating she quickly moved on to the dirt. Shovelling it out with her palms, debris sprayed all over her apron and the floor. She picked out a small white square note, and then another, and another, shoving each one into the pocket of her apron. When all the soil had spilled over the sides of the basin, Neves stood up and brushed the dirt from her lap. The notes Neves unearthed were read aloud by the audience and hung on the very line she created by dragging the basin. “Your portrait” or “His trousers,” “Our photos” or “Their documents” were in the company of names and numbers, such as “Lidia D’Avolvia (86).” These fragmented sentences, seemed to refer to equally fragmentary or incomplete memories.
Memory is often something appointed to the periphery of the mind, and not something we readily envision as corporeal. Neves’ performance offered a reminder that this is not the case. Memory is as much a manifestation of the body as it is of the mind. Thoughts and memories are planted in our minds, we carry them with us, we act upon them, we dig them up, and we make attempts to piece them back together with the help of others. Perhaps the crux of the performance, in my opinion, was the thread. Dragging memories along with you is one way to create a tie from where you once were to where you are now, and that bond is the very same fragile site along which you try to pin the remnants you find. By smartly using metaphor (which is also relegated largely to the domain of the mind) as the literal platform for her performance, we are invited to remember that actions can embolden our thoughts.
Heavy and cumbersome, as Neves’ laboured movements demonstrated, memories can be weighty and indulgent – and easily exaggerated in the presence of love. Blondeau’s performance was introduced by a suggestion that this was a more casual piece than the previous acts that evening, welcoming the audience to wander in and out of the room while the performance was in process. Blondeau stood before a wall she had been working on, absorbed in her task. She took no notice of the audience, who seated themselves- too cautious to initially heed the invitation to mill about. Blondeau had formed two human figures out of rose petals and she was working on the third, plucking petal after petal and methodically sticking them to the wall. Blondeau was making it clear that the act of piecing together these life-sized flowery silhouettes was a considerable undertaking. After finishing the third figure, Blondeau headed to the back room and re-emerged with a bottle of wine. She cracked it open, and poured herself a glass. I could sense the audience waiting for the next part of the performance, feeling like this event would mark a shifting point, but instead, Blondeau merely dragged the fourth bucket of cut roses beside her, sat on the floor, and continued working on the next figure. With her iPod on a shuffle of Coldplay, Van Morrison and Lauryn Hill (a soundtrack eligible for the heartbroken), her glass of wine beside her, and her rose petal figures, the tableau seemed fitting for a romantic comedy. As an artist whose work deals frequently with the development of personas and alter egos, I wondered who this silent, introspective and busily occupied character could be. A crazed jilted lover, psychopathically recreating the figure of their lost love? A woman on the borderline between the obsessive and the histrionic? Yet, Blondeau never provided us with even the most remote suggestion that there was ever any emotion involved in the performance whatsoever. She hardly even looked at us.
Eventually, when the audience decided they had the gist of the performance plot covered, they began to chat among themselves, headed to the bar, or found new seats, while Blondeau took no notice. Some started to take bets as to how long it would take her to finish with the last figure, and it was only the audience’s gambling that made for the comedy part of this romance. Compared to Neves’, whose performance also involved an element of ‘crazed,’ Blondeau lacked the thoughtful depth in her performance that could have made her work even the slightest bit more compelling. As it was performed, her actions were superficial and vague, not exaggerated enough to successfully pull off the parody she seemed to be making.
Despite being presented with similar methodological approaches, the diversity of performances on Wednesday made for a curious evening. For the audience, there was no shock offered by any of the artists, but a gradual development of subtly shifting progressions. Perhaps the idea of staging is overly obvious when discussing performance art, but Fritz, Neves and Blondeau each managed to produce a conversation about very distinct experiences, through the careful development of tight theatrical parameters- Fritz never straying from his mechanical swings. That being said, it was clear to me from the shallowness of Blondeau’s work that these parameters need to be formed in conjunction with something else, not used as the presentation itself. The stage can’t elicit as much as the performer.
All images provided by Ash Tanasiychuk, VANDOCUMENT.