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.”