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Reviews / February 5, 2014

Performatorium 2014: Queering the Prairies

Various locations, Regina January 15 to 18, 2014
Michael Dudeck <em>Thus Spake Amma Syncletica</em>, 2014. Photo: Jason Cawood. Michael Dudeck Thus Spake Amma Syncletica, 2014. Photo: Jason Cawood.

Performatorium, Regina’s festival of queer performance, officially held its third edition a few weeks ago—perhaps its most ambitious yet. As artistic director Gary Varro articulated in his welcome statement, “This year’s festival brings together a wide range of performances that address spirituality • persona • transformation • transcendence • ritual • ecstasy – and in doing so creates an immersive experience for performers and audience alike.” It was certainly a tall order for the audience, with many rather heavy performances taking place in just three days at an artist-run centre, a university gallery, and (perhaps most inspired in terms of location) a church-turned-venue downtown.

Throughout all of the festival’s performances—which included artists from London, Los Angeles and Sydney as well as Canadian cities near and far—I wondered about many questions. Is all performance inherently queer? What does it mean to have a queer performance art festival in Regina, not so long ago found to be one of Canada’s most dangerous cities, and prior to that, one of its least desirable places to live? As acceptance for homonormative life choices grow with the ever-narrowing assimilation gap, does being queer, now more than ever, confuse perceived expectations of how to achieve happiness? These issues stayed with me through the 72 hours of the event.

Day One: Transcendence

A small but enthusiastic crowd mingled in the media lounge space of artist-run centre Neutral Ground as it waited for Okenese traditional drummer Rodney (Biddy) Keewatin to commence. Rodney told us what he was presenting—he and his single hide-stretched hand drum—was a heartbeat to bring us together, to keep us together, and to keep us going as a community. As performers for the festival were drawn from far-flung parts of the globe, this was an important gesture. Keewatin’s drumming and singing reminded us we were in Assiniboine, Cree and Saulteaux territory. It reminded us that, historically, Indigenous Canadians have been silenced; their practices of drumming, singing, and dancing were often (whether directly or indirectly) made illegal under colonial law. A history of outlawed culture can also be found, of course, in queer existence, which has been repressed and systematically targeted in its own way by religious and governmental institutions over the years.

Following the stirring drumming was a multimedia performance by Vancouver- and Regina-based artist Lucien Durey titled When I Get This Feeling. The audience was strewn all over the floor of the gallery, watching Durey onscreen, dressed in a coat and tie, as he sang an unidentified hymn in a Ukrainian church in Creighton, Saskatchewan. Durey’s video was quickly augmented when the artist, standing among the audience in a similar outfit, began singing George Michael’s Faith. This was followed by a very successful back-and-forth from the live Durey to the video-double Durey. At one point, the artist was harmonizing with his videotaped self through a medley of pop songs, and then it was just the live him and then just the video him singing. As soon as the audience thought it was accustomed to a pattern, Durey would change direction and we heard only the audio, without the lip-synching and without the harmonizing. In a sense, Durey’s character could be interpreted as “the straight man” who becomes more and more undone through a brief performance in which songs of hope turn to lust.

Also performing that night were Sarah Hill of Boston and Michael Dudeck of Winnipeg—both playing with gender roles and (undoing) expectations, but from vastly different positions.

Hill, dressed in a sort of party-girl outfit replete with wig, false lashes, and cocktail dress, repeated the statement “I’m fine” over and over again while jumping as high as possible and landing (hard) on chunky fashion heels. Right away, the shoes begin to give way and fake jewels flew off. Soon after, Hill’s body showed signs of just how physically exhausting this “act” can become. As an artist who is transitioning gender, Hill sees this performance as a way of documenting a journey. Though Hill was, early on, able to jump high and long, toward the end of this performance the artist was on bended knees, still repeating the slogan, but barely able to get up. Through this grotesque glamour, gender ambiguity prevailed with a mimicry of (and related challenge to) binary codes. This led us to a question: In the ritual of passing, when do the behaviours we are all taught to adopt stop being “fine”?

In an elaborate costume of a different sort, Michael Dudeck emerged from the crowd, uncharacteristically unassuming; though well known for grand gestures, here, during a casual entrance, he took the risk of being unceremonious. In the latest chapter of his evolving reconsideration of Western religion, Dudeck, in deity drag, addressed the audience-turned-congregation. The performance/lecture hybrid underlined a new development for Dudeck, one where, in a surprising twist, the artist transgressed his own über-affected and ultra-serious persona to slyly (while also quite successfully) poke fun at the seriousness of the situation. Nowhere was this more present than in the delivery of the punchline where he announced the name of the centre of which he was the representative: The Messiah Complex. His sermon-turned-PowerPoint-presentation was ruptured on occasion through the singing and reciting of hymns, the most touching and honest of which he concluded his performance with. In these latter songs, Dudeck thanked the audience “for hearing me,” “for not leaving me,” and “for breaking my heart.”

Day Two: Duration

It should come as no surprise that at a performance-art festival with a focus on the spiritual, there would be durational works.

The first piece in a series of multi-hour Performatorium performances was Sydney artist Julie Vulcan’s participatory work I Stand In, which was presented for a full workday (eight hours) in the University of Regina’s campus gallery, Fifth Parallel. Vulcan transformed the gallery so that she could metaphorically cleanse a number of volunteers (32, to be exact, myself included) who lay naked, one at a time, on her table in 15-minute sessions. The artist, also a trained massage therapist, would rub olive oil all over the attendant body in an act that resembled the ritual cleansing of a corpse. At the end of each volunteer’s time, the artist pressed a white muslin cloth into and along their body to take an impression, using the oil as an imperfect pigment. She then signed, in red felt pen, the bottom right corner of the shroud with a form of truncated poetics—“endless ocean,” “dust and rubble,” “violet flares”—and proceeded to hang the cloth up on a laundry line. Each of her texts alluded to the possibilities in myriad situations in which lives are ended and bodies are in need of addressing. The gallery eventually filled with these shrouds to an impactful effect.

In durational works such as Vulcan’s, it becomes about the small, though profound, physical differences: a middle-aged, grey-haired woman; a young man; a tall person; or a short one. Through these details, we perceive an individual’s stories and, by extension, the stories for which they are stand-ins (natural disasters, war, etc.). In a conversation following the close of the performance, the artist informed me she didn’t necessarily think of the work as a response to the fallout of war, but instead to the larger question of what to do when there is an influx of dead bodies to care for. For Vulcan, it is more about when natural disasters occur and action must be taken en masse. Still, lying there on her table as she kneaded my body and wrapped her arms around my slickened torso, I couldn’t help thinking of how we learn about war as something that men do, and that women clean up. Is war a ritual we will ever leave behind? Who will care for my queer corpse when the time comes?

Later that evening, an audience braved the wind to take shelter in a renovated church in downtown Regina. Known as the Artesian, this venue provided the perfect atmosphere to witness three overlapping durational works by Julie Tolentino of Los Angeles, Joshua Vettivelu of Toronto, and Humboldt Magnussen of Toronto and Saskatoon. Each approximately four hours in length, these works were expertly assembled and played off of one another in specific instances.

Tolentino’s movement was sly and slight as her partner, Stosh Fila, poured what must have been a gallon of honey from the perch of a deer blind high above her. Standing the entire time, the liquid accumulating in, over, around, and under her, the artist mirrored various moments of anguish and ecstasy, but ultimately put forth a personification of precarity.

Meanwhile, working away methodically on his piece Glory Hole, Vettivelu slowly tied nearly 600 fake white Easter lilies to a string and fed them, one at a time, through a freestanding wall positioned opposite Tolentino. One side of his eight-foot-by-four-foot structure was bland, plain particleboard (the kind one might expect or remember from a glory hole experience); the other side (facing the audience) was a mirror. So well-crafted was this “stage” that when curious audience members sought a closer look, their reflection showed a spool of white flowers snaking from their reflected groins into a sumptuous pile on the floor. Here, the synthetic flower became a metaphor for how young queers such as Vettivelu might approach a history or lineage from which they could be considered, yet have virtually no experiential reference points. His performance was cerebral, but touching—particularly so when considering the glory hole as a symbol of 1970s sexual liberation that was subsequently overshadowed by the losses of the AIDS generation.

The final performer of the night was Humboldt Magnussen, in a piece all about birthing the self. With his fellow artists stationed on the floor, he took the elevated stage area of this one-time church; upon this, he sewed himself into a makeshift womb of heavy canvas. After writhing inside for a number of hours, the artist emerged from the sack and turned it inside out to reveal he had been painting within the entire time (his once clean shirtless torso became, upon emergence, a mess of muddy acrylic pigment). His performance concluded with the revealing and subsequent hanging of this canvas from wires attached to the top corners of the fabric. It may have been a hangover of the milieu in which this piece was created, but I could make some succinct visual ties between the painting produced and the legacy of the Regina Five, in particular the expressionist landscapes of Ted Godwin.

Day Three: Convergence

The following day, the group of performers gathered for a public roundtable discussion concerning the themes of the festival and how they might be reflected in their own practices or experiences. This was a thoughtful way of bringing together artists who might not otherwise have the time, over such a short festival, to mingle, as well as to allow for more public interaction that could transcend the usual audience/performer divide. Conversations concerning the idea of art as a weapon against apathy, boredom and lack of political engagement arose, as did issues concerning vulnerability, visibility and the occupying or embodying of queer subjectivity. In the end, this lunch felt a little bit like a grad school seminar, but in the best way.

That night would see another round of simultaneous performances taking place, only this time back where we started—at Neutral Ground, which has shown a variety of visual art and new media over the years. The director of the centre, Brenda Cleniuk, informed me that Neutral Ground has had strong ties to performance work as well, both in hosting its own performance events and in acting as an hub for other festivals taking root in the city, such as Queer City Cinema, which went on to spawn Performatorium.

The first to perform was London-based artist Kira O’Reilly. The audience was ushered into the gallery to see O’Reilly already en scène, nude and folded upside-down and backwards into a corner of the space. Her dedicated area was dressed with dozens of eggs alongside numerous mixing bowls overflowing with loose green glitter. The artist, over a period of hours, eventually made her way throughout this section of the gallery in slight movements, taking the forms of Modernist sculptures à la Henry Moore while crushing the eggs under her weight and pouring the glitter all over the yolk-wet surface of her body. The durational aspect, coupled with the sensitivity the audience must have felt for the artist’s body, gave the whole piece an overall feeling similar to listening to a symphony or watching a ballet—there were certainly movements similar to those in a musical score which O’Reilly activated and revisited throughout the piece, culminating in her altered, glistening and glittery appearance folding itself back into the same place from which she began.

The final three artists to perform were certainly younger and more emerging, though confident in their exploration of issues related to the theme.

Guatemalan-born, Toronto-based artist Francisco-Fernando Granados presented two works. One of these, spatial profiling (inspired by Margaret Dragu’s ‘Eine Kleine Nacht Radio,’ 1999) showed that Granados is a student of performance history. In the other, I have only ever been a lover in English, Granados drew a line on the wall with his tongue and saliva—a work which I felt also spoke to historical practices. Though Granados attempted to make both works his own, they ultimately came off as academic, in my view, and lacked the type of urgency so prevalent in others taking place that night.

Urgency, for instance, was certainly felt by the audience while Milan’s Arianna Ferrari performed her work Wind In adjacent to Granados. Having entered the gallery in a slip, the artist casually disrobed and lay next to a commercial-grade air compressor. She inserted the nozzle into her mouth, along with a tiny microphone, and performed this way for an agonizing 15 minutes. Some members of the audience were in tears at this potentially violent act, while others were at a loss for the forthright sincerity in this minimalist gesture. Her hands were clasped around the twisted yellow hose in such a way that the machine became a dizzying symbol for both aggressor and supporter.

In a separate room, Madeleine Botet De LaCaze of London and Buenos Aires performed The Shell, which was part horror movie trailer and part nightmare. In a very small soundproof room with a floor covered in dirt, and the projection of a wooded scene, the audience was let in four at a time. They were led to the middle of this small room, and from a darkened corner came De LaCaze, nude and frantically pacing in circles around the group. She began to run, and then stopped to pose in front of the projection, which ended up shifting to an image of herself. Crying, the artist smeared herself with the dirt; your nostrils could smell the dampness in this cool room. Onscreen, she was bathing. The two gestures, though diametrically opposed, fell into coherence and echoed one another. A brief stint of this was followed by more running and confrontation with the audience; then she disappeared and the group was led back out.

In regard to the questions I kept in mind throughout the festival, and which I stated in my introduction to this review, there were few conclusions. Thinking through the issue of queerness and happiness, it’s notable that through the entire weekend, only once, during Durey’s a cappella performance, did the audience laugh. But there was something here, too, to feel very positive about. I think the fact that all of the senior artists involved in this festival were women, and the emerging artists were a fairly even mix of genders, signals an important queering of intergenerational knowledge-sharing. And it is only in instances when we are able to reconsider the script that the real queering begins.

Now a standalone festival in its own right, rather than a series appended to a film event, Performatorium should be on everyone’s list for next year.