Saturday, October 23, 2004

The Big Picture 02

I have long believed that people attend performance art spectacles because they don’t have the patience for traditional theatre.
Theatre, after all, involves sitting down quietly in the hushed and reverent dark, waiting for Important Things to happen or to be said, making chitchat at intermission, then watching for Revelatory Things to be said, and finally pretending you enjoyed yourself when it’s over – all for about 50 dollars.

Performance art, however, usually happens in a well lit art gallery, comes with a cheap drink, costs little or nothing to watch, and allows you to walk away when you’re bored without social embarrassment.

So, why is this more humane art form often dismissed as theatre’s poor mongrel cousin?
Shannon Cochrane, co-founder of the 7a*11d (no, I’m not making a speech balloon euphemism for cussing, that’s the way it’s spelled) International Festival of Performance Art, describes the annual roundup of shameless self indulgence, delirious ranting and, according to the press kit, butter dancing as “not, thanks, just a collection of performance art clichés – it’s more like participatory theatre, without the bad dinner.”

“But that’s a standard urban joke – come to my performance art show and I’ll take a pooh on the stage and scream for five hours. However, at this year’s festival we have everything from performative academic lectures to activist agit-prop interventions to DIY video making and, yes, hard core performance art.”

Such as? I ask, ever the sensationalist.

“Ok, ok, Mr. Ambulance Chaser” Cochrane chides, “such as a 7 hour endurance performance that is a take on the home improvement industry – involving the creation and destruction of an entire home, with burning piles of porn and the eventual burning of the whole house (we don’t know exactly how that will work yet …). Well, that one’s for the old school purists.”

Cochrane admits that all-day displays of pyrotechnics are about as close to the mainstream perception of performance art - people behaving badly - as you can get, but still bristles at how even the sophisticated art world reduces the wide world of performance art to silly stunts.
“The problem with the label Performance Art is that it’s a leaky umbrella, trying to cover too much, too diverse a practice. Same as the word Theatre. You say Thee-att-urr and people think, Oh God, five hours of modernized Chekhov with an improv jazz score.
Maybe the two genres should switch audiences for a year or so?”

Now in its eight year, 7a*11d has grown from its humble beginnings as a weekend of underfunded public nuisances to a publicly financed, relatively polished fortnight that also includes music, dance, experimental theatre, lectures, independent film, abundant genial hilarity, and sexy parties.

Cochrane herself recommends The Reverend Billy, a US-based performer/ anti-consumerist activist who, she confesses, “we were worried we wouldn’t get into the country because there’s a Starbucks in LA taking him to court for doing one of his “cash register exorcisms”, which involves the laying on of hands on a cash register. But he’s coming, and since the festival is based in Kensington Market, I expect some performances might happen around the new Loblaws outlet opening in the market. We need the Reverend Billy right now.”

“We also have a show called Unrehearsed Beauty, by PME, a Toronto troupe who tour the world but haven’t played in Toronto in years. They’re a rock band who can’t really play their instruments, so they turn the show into a public forum, the subject of which is determined by the open mike in the audience”

So, has performance art grown up?

“Why would anyone want to do that?”


Czech-Canadian photographer Jakub Dolejs, famed for creating a series of large, carefully staged photos that looked like a cross between historical images and film stills, has decided to turn his lens on himself.

Coming of age in several cultures, Dolejs has, to say the least, an ambivalent relationship with language and how words shape entire cultures and individual personalities. If the late Derrida is to be believed (and I’m a believer), all experience is rooted in language – even the very intimate experience of looking in a mirror.

For his second solo exhibition, AutumnFall, at Angell Gallery, Dolejs takes this unspoken (pun intended) self/words relationship and makes some big noise - offering the viewer a collection of large photographs depicting himself and his partner literally cornered by language.
Reminiscent of The Lady from Shanghai’s hall of mirrors ending, minus the gunplay, Dolejs new photographs employ mirror games and the austere body language of fashion photography to show us people who are living in multiple worlds: an act that requires a level of self consciousness, and continuous alertness, that those of us raised in one familiar culture cannot image.

Loaded with tension and a curious kind of anxious glamour, Dolejs photographs are deceptively simple acts of self-examination (and no small amount of playful self deprecation – cute as they are, Dolejs and his partner are too apple-cheeked wholesome to be dour fashion models) that resonate with the outsider’s naturalized paranoia.


Sonja Ahlers’s first graphic novel, Temper, Temper (1998), caused a sensation in the small press world – part diary, part comic book, part cut-and-paste manifesto, it earned Ahlers a reputation as a novelist who doesn’t so much write novels as she constructs them, scrap book page by scrap book page.

Her second non-novel novel, Fatal Distraction, solidifies her reputation as the Kathy Acker of the ‘zine aesthetic - as a woman-child bent on telling horrifying tales of sexual and psychological dysfunction using a baby doll box of crayons. Think Beatrix Potter on Paxil, armed with a very sharp pair of scissors and an even sharper eye.


7a*11d International Festival of Performance Art
October 20-31, XPACE 303 Augusta Avenue and across Toronto
www.7a-11d.ca for details

Jakub Dolejs AutumnFall
October 14-November 20 Angell Gallery 890 Queen Street West

Fatal Distraction by Sonja Ahlers
Available from Insomniac Press