The Discombobulation of the Interval (Part 1?)

gene simmons learns to knit

This time, our here-now, is about being smack dab in the centre of an interminable in-between. Whether stuck or circulating there, this is a moment of prolonged pause and of being on indefinite hold.

Cycle 3 (of this project) is therefore a corresponding in-between cycle. Cycle 3 (this here-now) is like the half floor in Being John Malkovich: this liminal world where time has its own (new) rhythm and you start to feel yourself kind of split off into another part of this/your self (who am I when I’m home, looping day-in-day-out 24/7) and that other part tries to enter the “previous” you, via your brain/body, creating an uncanny sense of “you”/not you (me and this “other” version of myself). If only because you’ve stepped into this whole other version of (global) reality. A new reality of global proportions. Temporarily. That half floor is pushing against the walls of “normal space/time.” Encroaching and enveloping what was once your daily routine. That half floor is the new reality. For now.

This state of in-between brings us closer to other cultures and places outside our North American experience. Take Cuba, for example, where almost every kind of commercial transaction means having to wait and often having no idea how long you’ll be waiting (which is something we are actually having to do here now because of “social distancing.”) Waiting is a skill. Waiting is creative. That interval in time is inhabited by a quality of presence that requires a degree of letting go. Our culture is not very adept at this.

Waiting is a subject that has been thoroughly explored by Swedish Ethnographers Billy Ehn and Orvar Löfgren in their thoughtful study, The Secret World of Doing Nothing in which they describe this state of pause as having varying impacts on the person who waits, depending on how much information one has been privy to. Passengers on a plane, for example, will start to feel frustrated if told nothing while sitting impatiently on a tarmac watching the clock ticking during a delayed departure. If checked-in with by the pilot, “We’re sorry, folks, there’s a slight problem with the air cooling system and we expect to here another 20 minutes or so. We’ll keep you updated,” there’s at least a sense of “control” of the situation.

So that’s obviously partly what’s so disconcerting about this time we’re in: this not knowing how long we’ll be stuck (or circulating) in this prolonged interval. And we have no control.

There is something quite spectacular about this particular in-between as well; humans at the best of times are not always great at riding life transitions or change (big or small). So with so many question marks in the air, this time of uncertainty that is unraveling in us and all around us – on a very personal and global scale all at once – has the micro and the macro colliding, creating a simultaneous chasm and a bonding. Each of us is living through this challenge as our life situations dictate but everyone all around the globe is going through some version of this at exactly the same time as me.

And of course I can’t not bring up the subject of the interval – and this grandiose-level-pause – without bringing in the notion of the “performative.” On a personal level many of us are having to reinvent ourselves, and our lives, to some degree or other, in order to move forward in this discombobulating time (with the parallel global scale of governments reinventing “order”). This personal reinvention of time/space/routine is fundamentally – and infinitely – creative. Even if daunting. And a whole other set of challenges. I come back to the John Malkovich analogy above.

Of course it’s awkward to be writing about something you’re in because you don’t have the benefit of hindsight to support clarity and greater perspective. I guess that could be the disclaimer for every post I might write during this cycle.

But for that same reason it has my neurons firing off in multiple directions. So while I have more to say on the subject, I’ll leave it here. Any perhaps come back with a part 2 in a near-future post.

The Rest of the World Is Moving at My Speed Now

Smith_How to Do Nothing_bookcover

… Is what my friend L said to me last week when we had a brief catch-up.

Like many I find myself on several calls (and zoom chats) every day, so by the time she and I were speaking I was feeling somewhat saturated. But we stayed on long enough for her to describe how strange it is that she feels like her routine hasn’t changed much at all. And how everything around her is suddenly moving more at her pace. I.e.: no pressure to have be running to activities or events, not a whole lot to have to do out in the world.

As someone living with chronic pain and with general low energy, this pressure to be social and productive (in the time before the pandemic) has been a weight for her to carry, both with regards to worrying about needing to cancel plans at the last minute (if she’s not feeling well) and with feeling like she’s not contributing as fully to society as she could (or once did).

This conversation continued when I spoke with another colleague who mentioned that many of her entourage, folks also living with varying types of chronic conditions (both physical and mental), are the people around her who are the best equipped to be dealing with this current situation.

“These are people who have all the tools,” she said.
“They know how to stay home and deploy self-care. They are often quite isolated in their day-to-day and so now, suddenly having to be shut-ins they are not freaking out, but just dealing with it and quite well, doing all the things they have been teaching themselves to do.”

She pointed out that this creates a fascinating role-reversal in which those who are used to being “on top” are now reeling from the crisis, whereby those who are used to being ostracized are now feeling quite at home. This doesn’t make the overarching reality of the crisis easier on any one person but mostly to highlight that those living with chronic illness are much better positioned to move more easily into a now increasing need to normalize slowing down.

Normalizing slowing down. Normalizing taking breaks. Normalizing staying home.

Normalizing NOT ALWAYS BEING BUSY AND PRODUCTIVE – and still finding and feeling a sense of self-worth.

On Indefinite Hold

In early 2020 the world was plunged into a global pandemic. On the one hand frontline workers (such as grocery store clerks and hospital staff) have been working non-stop and literally putting their lives on the line each day. On the other hand huge swaths of society are now “self-isolating” and ripped out of usual routines. We’re all told to keep our “social distance” and many of us are at home, Doing Nothing. In as much as I’m able to concentrate during this surreal and challenging time, I’m keeping track of reflections, observations, correlations, and inspirations that find an uncanny dwelling in the non-doing that has now become the “new normal” and essence for many of us, in our lives.

Residue of Resting – Saying Goodbye to McGill

Closure on the current cycle of this project has not been so pat, as we had a series of “final” events in the Faculty of Education that dovetailed more closely with the end of the school semester. March was the big hurrah! And April, May, saw quieter times at McGill (notably in our home-base, the Art Hive).

Which honestly, I did not mind. It gave me time to sit back and take in the events of the year, and think about how this project will continue. So although I feel like things more-or-less wrapped up some weeks ago, in addition to the reflections that were posted last month I wanted to say a few parting words, before I officially head into the next cycle. In particular, I’m curious to observe how my process in residence also ended up producing objects (you heard me!) – something that my work tends to not do very often. This was in the form of the Lobby Oasis (a moveable installation)

Translating hard surfaces into friendly soft ones, these Giant Pillows were my attempt to create an interruption; periodically placed in the lobby of the Education Building (otherwise living in the Art Hive), they offered the possibility for an unexpected moment of pause – in the middle of a busy lobby (and probably an equally busy schedule).

Three pillows were made, using the precise textures of the building’s interior and surrounding surfaces: the centre column, the walls and the ceiling. This resulted in “The Concrete Pillar Pillow,” “The Pliant Part of Brick” and “The Spongy Waffle.”

And so, these parting words are also parting gifts, as a physicalized embodiment of my projects’ intentions now remain (forever! Or as long they pillows will hold up) in the Education Building. A prolonged, and ongoing invitation to members of the community at McGill to slow down, even lie down, and rest.

Resting, Walking, Place-Making: Reflecting on a Day of Reflection

How do we in fact talk about invisible, liminal spaces in art?

Right around the time of the day of reflections, I gave a workshop in an intro performance studies class called The Poetics of Performance. Elisha Conway, PhD candidate and instructor for this course at McGill assigned a reading from Erika Fischer-Lichte’s The Transformative Power of Performance: a new aesthetics.

In revisiting the notion of the “performative turn” via Fischer-Lichte’s text – the intersubjectivity of the artist-audience, and simultaneous production (by the artist, in a redefined relationship with the audience) and reception (by a spectator who is now a crucial element in completing a work) – I was reminded that the project of underscoring process is also a strategy for highlighting the “already there.”

She cites John Cage’s 4’33” – the iconic performance in which a musician sits at a piano before an audience not playing for a full four minutes and thirty three seconds – as one (historical and sufficiently examined) example of this new aesthetic. In so doing she effectively directs my focus to this very space of the “already there.”

A work like Cage’s is the perfect culmination, for my purposes here, of Fischer-Lichte’s proposition, drawing together the conceptual, critical, temporal, spatial, embodied and affective components that infuse a performative art-moment – one that demonstrates what happens when the work itself brings attention to our attention – to what we notice and how, and to the very environment in which a work unfolds.

“There no longer exists a work of art, independent of its creator and recipient,” writes Fischer-Lichte, “instead, we are dealing with an event that involves everybody – albeit to different degrees and in different capacities.”

The artwork as event that she points to – very specifically as a moment to be experienced rather than interpreted (across the visual arts, literature, music and theatre) – means the calling of attention to how we come into contact not only with a work but the environment surrounding that work (i.e.: the others and the location). Suddenly the work is not just about an idea presented by an artist but our manner of observing it (as connected to personal histories, memories, emotions, etc.). The experience that we potentially become aware of then, along with affective responses to what is being witnessed, is related to how we respond. How we receive what is there and how this reception mixes with our sense of “self,” “here,” “now,” “place.” The meaning we make from the experience combines our particular “identity fragments” (to borrow a term from Sylvie Tourangeau) with a collective encounter (the group with the artist/work). Our relationship (even tenuous) to these “others,” and by extension our sense of the larger container that holds our experience, shapes our very perception – and reception – of a work. A manifestation, through a performative situation, of an “already there.”

…The slippery thing about the “already there” is that it is the thing right under our nose. So blatant that is goes unnoticed. It becomes “accepted,” hence invisible.

…This brings me to look at what was uncovered – in the realm of art experience – during the presentations of March 23rd

Delivering a combination of personal stories and historical facts, Lori Beavis (who identifies as part Anishinaabe, part Irish-Welsh settler descent and is a band member of the Hiawatha First Nation at Rice Lake, Ontario) performed a bannock-cooking demonstration, turning the space of the art hive into her kitchen-lab. In recounting anecdotes from her grandmother’s past, her wish to dialogue with this close ancestor became an extended invitation to dialogue with us. Infusing the conversation with distinct moments of contemplation in which we could see Lori reconnecting with these stories – receiving from her own sense of relationship to a past that is both as familial as it was politicized – allowed for our entering into the story as well. Who are we, as settlers in a country on unceded land? How do these stories make space for us to honour and grieve what might have been previously invisible to us (namely the existence of indigenous identities, cultures, histories, and lands – and their violent stripping away)?

Robert Luzar revisited a work that, in its initial conception, aimed to uncover a significant moment in social history – which went by and large, unremarked. Taking the student demonstrations of 1968 as his point of departure, Sanded Steps, Standing Over Stones asked the question: “After the protests, then what? Who deals with the debris?” As if in an elaborate (and never finishing) gesture, 4 people (RL, Julie Laurin, Nick Yeretsian and Frédérique Blanchard) swept a square of sand that never quite disappeared, but was merely displaced over a larger area – an action that became reminiscent of the citywide cleanup that spread across Paris in the post-demos aftermath (a rather commonplace but necessary “performance”). Wishing to give voice to all involved, audience members became part of the performance as well, reading excerpts from left-leaning and emancipatory political texts that themselves vaunted the all-but-forgotten ideals of a previous era.

For its part, Johannes Zits’ Getting Into Nothing did just that: it demonstrated the space of “the stage,” (a room in an annex building of the Faculty of Education) and the presence of the audience, in a prolonged arena of limbo. Exposing the process of “arriving to an action,” many moments verged on being uncomfortable, even awkward. That very space of awkward emerged due to our sense of holding this experience with Johannes, an effort that happened (that had to happen) all together. And this was Johannes’ force, and the power of his piece. The capacity to sit in these extended spaces of time being stretched before our eyes meant that we couldn’t help but notice: the room, our placement in it, Johannes’s body in relation to it, his absence within it (he would occasionally leave)… in other words not just the artist and his “art work” but all the elements surrounding the piece itself.

Shifting gears, we moved from performative presentations to a pairing of group discussions. Led by two Education students, one an undergrad, the other a PhD candidate, both had previously taken part in a series of encounters over the weeks and months leading up to the March 23rd activities.

My regular meetings with Jessica Giambagno and Maren Gube were in large part at the root of my project and process during my residence at McGill. Inviting them to participate in this day of reflections came as a natural extension of our time spent together (walking, talking and brainstorming on ideas for a project Jessica was undertaking; walking, talking and planning a workshop for Maren’s classroom of masters students). In each case I was interested in deliberately framing these experiences to emphasize that the manner and quality of the way we spend time together – while an unquantifiable element – can be an “artful” moment because of the attention brought to the moment, and the surrounding environment.

With both Jessica and Maren, during the time leading up to March 23rd and on the day itself, the “already there” came quite directly in the form of what each of these educators brought to the table from the outset. Our time together wasn’t therefore predicated on my leading or fishing for outcomes, but on what I gleaned could be offered, as a result of the preoccupations, passions and questions that each arrived with.

In a sense these conversations served to wrap up the day. While highlighting the invisible, liminal spaces in art through our collected activities of Resting, Walking and Place-Making, they also connected to what I consider to be specifically at the heart of performance practice, namely the possibility of a “performative consciousness” (a fundamental approach to being in the moment that often creates a heightened capacity to receive from an “already there”). This performative framing of an everyday encounter, as carried out with Jessica and Maren, turned our “ordinary” exchanges into opportunities for heightened reflections.

“As a self-organizing system,” writes Marvin Carlson in the introduction to Erika Fischer-Lichte’s book, “[performance art] continually receives and integrates into that system newly emerging, unplanned, and unpredictable elements from both sides of the [artist/audience] loop.” He goes on to quote scholar Jill Dolan to confirm the incredible potential for this very system to create what Dolan terms a utopian performative, those “small but profound moments in which performance calls the attention of the audience in a way that lifts everyone slightly above the present, into a hopeful feeling of what the world might be like if every moment of our lives were as emotionally voluminous, generous, aesthetically striking, and intersubjectively intense.” Or as Fischer-Lichte puts it, “a sudden deeper insight into the shared process of being in the world.”

Each presentation during this day of reflection in some way succeeded in opening such a space for deepened observation through singularly revealing how the “already there,” when experienced in a collective context does just that: creates a moment of “sudden deeper insight into the shared process of being in the world.”

Upcoming Event: A Day of Reflection on Resting, Walking, Place-Making

walking on mt royal

Resting, Walking, Place-Making: How Do We Talk About Invisible, Liminal Spaces in Art?

March 23, 2018, 10am – 6pm
Art Hive, McGill University, 3700 McTavish, (1st floor) Montreal
Free and open to the public

Moving across the various spaces in the Faculty of Education at McGill University, this day of reflections will engage in an embodied dialogue around the three themes that have comprised Victoria Stanton’s program in residence (namely Resting, Walking, Place-Making). Investigating how these themes subtly imbue the frameworks we may use for connecting art and education, this culminating event occurring toward the end of her residence invites members of the Faculty of Education, along with artists/scholars from the national and international community to share their explorations in a convivial setting, where performances, demonstrations and conversations can intermingle, and potentially generate new knowledges around the role of these more invisible practices within larger creative processes.

WITH OFFERINGS BY:

Victoria Stanton – (P. Lantz AiR) – Art Walk on Mount-Royal
Victoria invites you on a silent, collective walk on the mountain. Walking is as mundane an activity as it is profound. Not only does it allow a moment of being with our thoughts – a precious time to process events (big and small) – it also opens a space for breath and time for decompression. Or to leave thoughts behind. Maybe even to notice, and connect with, what is circulating around us. Following up on the heels of the Weekly Art Walk, this subtle, performative group action is a moment to arrive, before jumping into the activities of the day.

Lori Beavis (P. Lantz Coordinator) – Making Bannock … a space for contemplation
Lori’s presentation will be part cooking lesson, part dialogue. The food we make is so often connected to family history with recipes handed down from one generation to another. In many ways this has been Lori’s experience and she has made her grandmother’s recipes part of her art practice – this action has opened a space for her to “talk” to her grandmother about thoughts on shared cultural identity as Lori writes out or makes the recipes. During this presentation, as she prepares a round of bannock, she will discuss how one may use the process of preparing food as an opportunity to contemplate memory and identity.

Lori’s presentation enacts a space of collective contemplation, the preparing of food as “performance” becoming an act of witnessing while also creating a suspension of time; a moment of collective rest. Further, the sharing of this recipe – and history/identity – itself becomes an act of education, where transmission (of knowledge, of skills, or histories) is the very basis of the piece; where wellbeing/care, learning and community intersect.

Johannes Zits (Artist and Curator, Toronto) – Getting Into Nothing
Johannes’ performance is structured around a series of actions without intention or direction. Inspired by Victoria’s project, as a way to frame these actions, he is working with emptiness, waiting, stillness, rest, inaction, as well as pauses and gaps. These elements explore the possibility that nothing can become something within a given context.

For Johannes, “getting into nothing” means trying to work through the notion of “embodying” as a kind of total approach that shows us as we are, and as we try to exist, learn, think, do… Inevitably struggling with barely being there at all. As a queer (and aging) male, Johannes and his performance invite – while enacting – an embodied consideration of what it means to put oneself totally and quite physically into such situations that strangely celebrate the human condition, in all its guises. The piece also works to symbolically express a certain bare minimum of the human condition, holding various precarious states while engendering knowledge at its foundational level; of where (and how) the body (and all its faculties) may take risks through risking beautiful vulnerability.

Robert Luzar (Bath School of Art and Design, Lecturer) – Sanded Steps, Standing Over Stones
Robert proposes a participatory performance: four people stand apart and over an area of sand mixed with debris (e.g. crumbs, pebbles from pavement found and gathered around the education building, spread throughout a room). The work starts over a kind of public square. In plain view, the group gently sweeps the sand – but who notices? Are the four “occupying” the square or room? Or holding a spot, a symbolically private island? The questions are open. The work goes as it appears. Throughout the span of the piece, four people step from one end of the sand to another. Each slowly sweeps away footprints left from the other. Sometimes one person stops walking. Another walks over, moving them on. “Move on” the person says. “Nothing to see!” Another responds. And yet another: “Under the stones is the beach!” These and other statements, and longer texts, are said, echoing words from student demonstrations (c.1968), revolutionary change, and praxis. While this action takes place, the audience (who themselves may become participants) is offered texts printed on paper, and are asked to quietly read out them out. By reading out in hushed tones, like barely heard whispers, the sounds of the sweeping and moving around become pronounced. Sounds of disquiet and unrest. Either way the work goes on, sweeping, stepping, stopping, then walking or pacing again, reading and sounding, and so forth… until all the sand is swept across the stones/the floor. The collective action becomes traceless. Metaphors of change, work, and everyday life are symbolically cleared. The symbolic public square is swept.

Here, Robert’s piece engages education and pedagogy via the combined act of sand sweeping, reading and passing on – of texts, actions, and reflections. The act of people/students passing in and out of this space means turning the location into a kind of peripatetic environment where individual and collective reflection occurs via the passing of something; where students and the public at large would be handed printed pages from books (emancipatory pedagogy such as Paolo Friere and related radical literature, for example Fanon, Weil, Horkheimer/Adorno) by authors whose ideas have engaged with education, freedom and equality.

Jessica Giambagno (McGill, B.Ed) – The Community Within
Jessica, a pre-service teacher and ongoing participant in Victoria’s project, will be leading a participatory discussion that looks at the interest in creating much needed spaces of dialogue within the university setting. Beyond meetings that take place formally (for example in the completion of group class projects) or informally (having coffee between classes) the idea here is to collectively draft a spontaneously constructed “plan of action” – taking suggestions from the audience in a kind of brainstorming session where we collectively communicate common (or divergent) desires around tools for building community – in whatever context we might find ourselves. Here, place-making is addressed in relation to a specific context (being an undergraduate student in Education at McGill) but one that could easily relate to other contexts as well.

Inviting Jessica to be part of this event and lead a discussion on The Community Within stems from a creative dialogue which began during the fall semester. What started as the seed for a classroom project turned into an ongoing an evolving exchange, where the foundational components of Victoria’s project (as intersecting with Jessica’s assignment) emerged to demonstrate how art, when brought into the realm of the social, the experiential and the environmental, is not only an object that stands outside us to be contemplated in a detached way but may come directly into dialogue with education itself; how invisible processes in the everyday can become creative and impact learning.

Maren Gube (McGill, PhD Candidate, Department of Educational & Counselling Psychology) – Understanding Creativity
In leading up to a workshop on Creativity that Victoria would be facilitating during the winter semester in Maren’s course (Education of Talented and Gifted Students), Maren and Victoria have been regularly meeting to discuss the form and content of this lesson. Going on walks, sharing readings and talking in the Art Hive have characterized their encounters, which began during the fall semester. Taking an otherwise “ordinary” formula of preparation, the two agreed to capitalize on both Maren’s research as a PhD student (namely the role of affective and motivational processes in supporting creative thinking) and the themes of Victoria’s residence to underline the possibility for (and importance of) highlighting a process of preparation – seeing the “leading up to” as just as important as the event itself (Victoria giving a workshop in Maren’s class).

Together they will discuss their process of creating this space of exchange as a consciously inhabited structure, deliberately framing this experience (as art, as part of Victoria’s overall project) in order to demonstrate a living and breathing process of creativity in action; of seeing the quality of the way we spend time together, while an unquantifiable element, as elemental in approaching not only art making but teaching about artistic & creative process.

Performance presentations will be followed by informal discussion/Q & A. Victoria will moderate all discussions post presentation. Light refreshments will be provided.

Schedule (subject to change)
• 10am… arrival and prepare to go out again for:

• 10:30am – 11:30am Art Walk With Victoria
Location: Circuit up on Mont-Royal

• 11:45am – 12:45pm: Lori Beavis – Making Bannock
Location: Art Hive

• 12:45pm – 1:30pm: Lunch break (bring a lunch; light snacks & juice provided)
Location: Art Hive & surrounding spaces

• 1:30pm – 2:30pm: Robert Luzar – Sanded Steps
Location: Library (raw space next to Art Hive)

• 2:45pm – 3:45pm: Johannes Zits – Getting Into Nothing
Location: Coach House, room 200

• 4pm – 5pm: Jessica Giambagno – The Community Within
Location: Art Hive

• 5:15 – 6pm: Maren Gube – Understanding Creativity
Location: Art Hive

• 6pm: snacks & beverages, informal chat

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This event is being presented by: the McGill Faculty of Education, the McGill Institute for Human Development and Well-Being, the McGill Art Hive Initiative, and the P. Lantz Initiative for Excellence in Education and the Arts.