Obsessionals:

Winnipeg’s International Intermedia Performance Art Festival

“I am whoever you think I am I reflect your projections You interpret me according to yourself I can be anyone but you You ask questions but don’t listen Watching and looking is easier Watch and look I reflect you into distortions I am no one but you.” -Alethea Lahoffer “The Police Interrogate An Artist”

Performance Art! Performance Art?

Imagine a live rock video and you begin to get an idea of what to expect. Winnipeg’s first Intermedia Performance Festival, mounted from September 14-21, 1986, brought together artists from Winnipeg, Canada, the United States and England and gave us a larger view of this expanding art form.

Originally developed as a way for visual artists to gain a larger audience, intermedia performance is becoming widely recognized as an independent art form. It combines various forms (theatre, dance, music) and media (video, film, slides) in a live performance. In certain ways it is a return to a species of more primitive art, a shamanistic ritual where the activity itself contains the meaning, where the act of performing is itself the content. This layering of forms breaks down the linear state of mind held by the audience/participant:

A soundtrack which fades in and out becomes itself a literal translation of the faded wallpaper it describes. The faded wallpaper is a metaphor for the tenuous grip the sane mind has on reality.

A man holds a camera on himself in front of a video screen projecting the image from the camera while talking about television. The talk parodies the belief, the image parodies the talk, the action parodies the medium. The proportions are exploded; the truth is revealed as a lie.

An artist speaking as herself of herself in the first person is interrogated by a symbol of an uncomprehending society. To examine her activity is to know her state of being. The obsessive nature of the performance reflects the obsessions of the society that spawned it.

Obsession appears to be a common thread in the material and presentation of intermedia performance. The extent to which the artist’s obsessions and the forms in which they are expressed were shared by the audience affected its ability to respond to the performance.

Carolee Schneemann, Photograph by Laura Letinsky

Calgary artist Marcella Bienvenue’s Jane Doe manifested the fragmentation of female experience in a bureaucratic urban society. This fragmentation was partially expressed through an obsession with lists. A list is necessarily a fragment. Jane Doe’s compilations were almost the only ‘evidence’ about the identity of the dead woman who, on the surface at least, was the subject of Bienvenue’s cryptic performance. What remained of Jane Doe’s life was dissected by a detective (whom we encountered only as a disembodied voice).

The reading and writing of lists, the slides and film projections of a bleak urban landscape and the contrast between the victim’s voice and the male voice, together functioned to convey Jane Doe’s alienation. The lengths to which Bienvenue went to communicate this alienation kept the audience as passive observers of Jane Doe’s dissolution. The character/performer remained a passive, fragile victim and the performance did not propose any options beyond documenting that victimization. As such, it limited our response to what otherwise was a provocative piece.

Doug Melnyk’s I Looked Down, an experiment in “found dialogue and storytelling”, was performed in the lobby of the Warehouse on the same night as Jane Doe. The Winnipeg artist’s found texts had the warmth and the immediacy of an actual storytelling. The texts were witty and well-paced, playing with contemporary issues and images. The synthesizer, played by Monique Lememere, extended the moods created by the three readers, Randy Kray, Ess Lee and Gail Noonan. After some initial tension, the performers found their individual and collective rhythms and established an engaging rapport with the audience, members of which were literally at their feet in the crowded space.

Carolee Schneemann’s performance of Fresh Blood-A Dream Morphology began by recreating the confused and disjointed state of an awakening dreamer. In contrast to the stark text and black and white images of Jane Doe, this veteran New York performance artist enticed the audience with lush images, murmuring voices and a burlesque of burlesque.

Initially Schneemann’s obsession appeared to be a clear plastic strawberry-emblazoned umbrella and her own body, clad for much of the performance in only red pyjama bottoms. Her performance deftly transformed both umbrella and body from object into image. These images became symbols through Schneemann’s intricate layering of drawings, photographs, videotapes and sound, movement, light, shadow and dialogue. This process of layering embodied the interpretation of the dream. The interpretation also included a series of visitants to the dreamer, all played by Tina Keeper, a Winnipeg performer. Schneemann recruits a female ‘alter-ego’ for this multiple part wherever she performs, bringing an immediacy and freshness to each performance.

Schneemann’s dreamer asks: “Are we dreaming ourselves or dreaming the dreams of the men dreaming us?” The self-reflexiveness of the question characterized this entrancing and assured performance. As the dream was recounted and interpreted, it explored the tension between masculine and feminine visions in life and art. Finally, Schneemann’s performance made it clear that both the dream and its interpretation are the artist’s own territory, which terrain she abundantly shared with her audience.

Winnipeg’s John Gurdebeke’s R & R was an episodic work which seemingly traced the seasons of the world. Time was sketched out from primordial ooze to post-human existence. In this piece, form proliferated to the exclusion of content. R & R never really came together, although there were a number of fine moments, including Megan Latouche’s flower striptease, Katherine Wilson’s cowboy monologue and Bill Wallace’s version of Huck Finn. But statements in the text were not made explicit through the action and, as a result, were lacking. Forms appeared to be mixed for the sake of display, rather than calculated to produce a specific effect which might inform the audience.

Near the end of the week, New York performance artist Tina Keane presented The Faded Wallpaper. It functioned cleanly, clearly and cohesively. Time, action and medium came together in a whole greater than the sum of its parts. The performer herself was part of the material of the performance, rather than allowing personality to create her in performance. The Faded Wallpaper began with Keane immobile on a bench, facing a barrier set at the back of the stage, covered in patterned wallpaper. At either side of the stage was a tower of television screens, layered in opposite directions, so that their images mirrored the two-way flow of wallpaper patterns. A recorded text painfully contrasted “the generally publicly agreed way of seeing things” with the personal patterns intuited, created and defined by a woman.

Midway through the performance Keane abandoned her bench, approached the wallpaper and began tugging at, scraping, and peeling off its many layers. At this point a cameraman entered and recorded her action, projecting it onto the television screens at both sides of the stage. The videotaping shared Keane’s literal point of view with the audience. Through its electronic focus we were able to see the wallpaper’s images with her eyes.

The audience was literally and metaphorically drawn into the artist’s struggle with the layering and patterning of reality. We were literally involved in what would appear and disappear as she tore the layers away. At the same time we began to wonder: “Why is she (and why am I) so obsessed with a bunch of wallpaper?” The alienation produced by this question mirrored the disoriented state of mind which produced the text.

The voice and text recorded the internal experience of someone separated from common experience, while the action of the performer manifested an external experience, the actual tearing of actual wallpaper. This action amplified and transcended the recurring patterns of recorded image and voice. In taking action, Keane affirmed the individual’s ability to reshape patterns to her own desires.

The Faded Wallpaper explored the struggle to control some of the images that surround the artist and the individual. A pair of artists from Minneapolis, David Brown and Betina playfully related the dis-ease of the artist and the individual enclosed by artificial images in Object of Desire. When desire is objectified and framed by a TV screen, its movement is circumscribed by a sterile set of test patterns.

The first part of the performance was created for an audience of twenty-five who were invited to eat home cooked dinners from TV tables. This was an interactive warm up for the performers. The second part was a series of vignettes exploring the effect of television on people’s lives. Brown and Betina play with televisions as objects and with television as a medium. Their words merge with TV scripts and we suddenly become aware of how television affects our collective identity. We are shown how television defines and deforms our outlook on life. Brown’s network executive explains the origin and development of programming, interviewing himself with a handheld camera. The result is a clever parody, hoisting television on its own technological petard. In one vignette Brown admits that he uses technology in order to hate it better.

At another point in the performance, Betina’s “Ultimatum to the Art World” deals with the disillusionment of the person who makes art. She begins to see herself as an artist and is disturbed by the thought that the medium takes over the person’s life. The video projection shows her spelling out the ultimatum while the soundtrack asks us to relate our dreams because they are not so different from her own: to have children, to be free of worries.

Together Brown and Betina explore how the images created by television have come to dominate our psyches. Another section of Object of Desire, “The search for the perfect father”, involved attempts to locate a TV father image and then to somehow make him concrete. The solution was to trace his outline in felt pen on the TV screen. The effect was nothing short of outrageous, and it undermined the illusions created by television. The piece ended with both performers lying on TVs while their images were projected, lost and floating in the never-never-land of ethereal imagery. Afterwards, they shared this desert and dessert with the audience.

Alethea Lahoffer’s initial engagement with her audience for The Police Interrogate An Artist was to place it in the artist’s environment. A studio above Plug-In was the location for the newest piece by this versatile Winnipeg poet and performance artist. The performer played herself; an actor (Mike Gottlieb) played the police officer; a clarinetist played the clarinet and dancers danced. Marvellous combinations of light, sound and metal danced and sang as well. The piece was intelligent and humourous in its exploration of the artist’s place in society.

The officer’s interrogation was prompted by an ostensible murder. However, the dead body in this case was a dead art form. The cop’s limited interrogative repertoire was juxtaposed with the artist’s repertoire and its limitations: “We aren’t getting anywhere talking to this artist. Eighty percent of her time is spent drinking coffee. Ten percent is spent griping about arts councils. Ten percent is spent working on art…”

A series of dualities-society versus the artist, the artist versus art, art versus life and life versus death-structured both the form and the content of the piece. Accomplished jazz was counterpointed by industrial noise and sound texturing; rote routine questioning met with metred poetic response. The artist’s love/hate relationship with her art was misinterpreted as a love/hate relationship with a man. Ultimately, the only victim in this piece was self-importance; its hero was a monument to human error, the coffee-spilling machine.

Lahoffer named the piece an “art comedy”. The performance expressed the joy that is the heart of comedy and in so doing transcended the dualities it delineated.

Moral/Passion, a richly textured performance by four dancer/actors was conceived and created by Elizabeth Chitty of Toronto. As the title suggests this piece, like Lahoffer’s, worked with dualities. In twelve scenes linked by sound, music, light and projections, the performers explored the physiological, emotional and ideological dimensions of loss. The intent was to communicate that loss can give birth to joy through spiritual transcendence. Unfortunately, the form of the piece worked against its expressed intent. The exquisitely costumed dancers, the paintings created in light, sound and movement, engaged the viewer sensually, but not emotionally. Pain is not pretty. The pain of loss was absent in its idealized portrayal. The death of a child lost over the rails at Niagara Falls was dealt with in a set of slides which had neither the familiarity of home movies nor the drama of news coverage. If this death had been believable, its portrayal would have provoked outrage.

At its best, intermedia performance functions dynamically as a vehicle for the incorporation of the form and content of the artist’s vision. In a sense, it gives body to that vision. A coherent embodiment, then, generates meaning for the audience. It is to the credit of the performers and organizers of Winnipeg’s International Intermedia Performance Festival that it provided a sufficiently broad range of expression and obsession to create both individual and collective meanings for its wide audience . •

Lee Anne Block teaches drama and language development to junior high school students. She also writes poetry and is a frequent contributor to Border Crossings.

Jean Sourrisseau is an actor and French language translator. This is his first contribution to Border Crossings.

Volume 6, Number 1: Robert Archambeau

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #21, published December 1986.

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