X-Marks - Paul Couillard
Neutral Ground's second festival of performance art, "Performance Marks", brought together three separate projects: a live webcast by the Toronto-based duo _badpacket_ (Mike Steventon and Michelle Kasprzak), a performance by Germany's Boris Nieslony, and a two-day process collaboration between Montreal-based Pierre Beaudoin and me (Paul Couillard, Toronto). The title for this festival, "Performance Marks", suggests an interest in the relationship between thought, action and material. In the words of curator Brenda Cleniuk,
Performance mark making asks, what constitutes the materiality of consciousness? what remains in history, in evidence? when are ideas enough? when does gradual and continuous action become noticed, shift from process to event? and how are events collected?
The chosen title is multilayered and ambiguous. 'Marks' can be read as a noun -- a reference to the traces left by a performance -- or as a verb, making "Performance Marks" a statement of what performance does or how it works The Concise Oxford Dictionary offers no less than 17 possible definitions for the noun "mark", among them a sign or indication; a written symbol; a stain or scar; a target; a desired object; a line serving to indicate position; or a cross made in place of a signature by an illiterate person. The dictionary offers another 11 meanings for the verb "mark", including to notice or observe; to record; to name; to trace a boundary, or to make a mark.
The marks and mark making that Cleniuk names in her curatorial statement are far-reaching. They encompass the range of possibilities open to the human body for manifesting and signifying its presence as a vessel of consciousness and experience in time and space. They include not only what can be apprehended with the senses -- physical traces, sounds, gestures, images -- but also those forces that can only be felt -- energy exchanges, internal transformations, the conversion of experience into understanding. She writes of a "riddle ... too intimate, too vulnerable, too smart to be revealed openly..."
Performance is a provisional, temporary event. To look at its marks, or to assert that it does mark, with all the imprecise conflations suggested by that word, is to point to the intention and significance of performance. It implies an urge to look beyond ephemerality to discover what is left in a performance's wake. It is to ask, "What remains?" The structure and meaning of the 'marks' of performance, however, may be very different than the structure and meaning of the original event -- just as footsteps in the snow are different from the act of walking. Performance is a territory where words are inadequate, with a duration that language cannot express. These impressions are themselves only marks, an illiterate's cross on a page -- two intersecting lines (one saying "here", the other saying "now", the joining of two truths whose unspeakable nature turns what remains into a lie before the ink is even dry) from which we are somehow meant to glean the full shape of a life. What cannot be expressed is reduced to a sign, a stand-in for experience, a 'something' left behind, to be witnessed by those whose paths bring them to this point of intersection.
April 15, 2003
_badpacket_ uses performance as a vehicle for the exploration of contemporary issues relating to the interfacing of humans and technology...
A _badpacket_ performance is a non-narrative mix ... using live internet input and output, video projection, and electronics as central elements, which are captured and submitted to our human-centred analysis and reflection.... resulting in the creation of a unique layered environment that taps into our hopes and fears for the future of technology.
_badpacket_'s web-based performance, "bitwise_operation_1" was staged in Toronto, streamed over the web and projected live in Neutral Ground's media lounge. Taking place during the SARS outbreak, and framed by the spotlight on Toronto as an epicenter of infection, the piece explored the image of quarantine as a staged ritual. The video stream offered a representation that referred more to the media spectacle of SARS than to the lived experience of Torontonians during the medical crisis. Dressed in coveralls, facemasks and rubber gloves, the two performers sealed themselves into separate side-by-side cubicles using clear plastic as a barrier. Exterior and bird's eye view recordings of the action, sometimes mixed with superimposed images of cells dividing, were overlaid with a trance-style electronic soundtrack. The performers' gestures -- Kasprzak snapping rubber gloves above her head in the foreground of the overhead camera's sightline, or Steventon carefully taping the sides of the plastic but ignoring the bottom edge -- were clearly more demonstrative than functional. Obsessive, repetitive, and staged for the camera, they privileged the syntax of icon over the feel of authenticity.
The stream was accompanied by an interactive chat room where web participants were invited to type their own anecdotes and reactions to SARS. An unseen moderator at the Toronto site served as provocateur, providing a steady stream of SARS rumours that were equal doses of media hype and urban legend. Audience members at the Neutral Ground site appeared reluctant to engage directly in this interactive element of the event, preferring to watch the live projection from the dark corners of the room rather than contributing their own 'marks'.
The conclusion of the piece -- the artists forsaking their self-imposed isolations to come together in a prolonged French kiss -- was infused with a melancholic ambiguity. Was this to be read as a hopeful rebellion against the separation of quarantine? Was it a defiantly subtle 'real' moment meant to challenge the authority of the 'false' media image of Torontonians in a state of siege? Or was it simply a rash act, proclaiming solidarity with the AIDS barebackers and Typhoid Marys for whom the strict rigours of epidemiological safety are, apparently, unsupportable? Removed from the live presence of the performers, I found their virtual kiss to be an unreadable image, its possible meanings as suspect as the staged quarantine. I was left with the chill of isolation that is the viewer's lot, a reinforcement of Guy Debord's assertion that, "Separation is the alpha and omega of the spectacle." In the absence of real bodies, the mark becomes a cipher, its intended meanings tinged with the message of the medium: "you can never fully know the circumstances of this mark's making".
April 18, 2003
Because the human being is a body and has a corpus, he exposes himself to a problem with his life, the split caused by being a picture and by making a picture of himself. Performance art is a place where this split shows itself as horror. The language which is spoken there, is the language of embarrassment and infamy. If no language comes to speak, it is the mereness of presence, the sufficiency itself. ...
That embarrassment is the indicator of the split, wherever it is. Whoever tracks it, may explore our manners and customs as far as the deepest, most delicate and hidden openings, the cultivated vivisection.
_badpacket_'s performance mimicked and exaggerated external representations, manipulating (virtual) space and objects with the broad showmanship and parody of a demo model while playing on the tension of electronic media conventions. Boris Nieslony's performance, on the other hand, was structured around delicate internal impulses and played on the tensions of theatrical convention. Like _badpacket_, Nieslony tackles the question of how one can respond to the challenge of being marked as spectacle. He searches for authenticity, seeking images that transcend symbolism to communicate as clear, universal moments.
Nieslony's performance consisted of several "nature studies". Each one presented an encounter with simple materials -- a roll of red yarn held up against a black cloth, and a boxed stack of 8X10 black and white photographs. These encounters were wordless, enacted with intense concentration and a studied economy of body movement and positioning. Performing in Neutral Ground's main gallery space, Nieslony divided the room into two, using a long table to delineate a fourth wall separating him from the audience. This arrangement defined his actions as images to be viewed from a distance. The room itself was evenly lit, however, so that the witnessing audience was as fully illuminated as Nieslony. Working against spectacle, he often turned his back away from the audience or performed his actions in profile, obscuring his gestures from the viewers. I interpret Nieslony's strategy of repositioning our sightlines as an attempt to direct our attention to a different set of marks (targets, desired objects, lines indicating position) than those privileged by narrative theatre.
In one nature study, Nieslony faced a black cloth. Holding up one end of a skein of red yarn in his outstretched hand, he meticulously pulled it through his pinched fingers, one length at a time, and then released it, allowing the end to drop. Sometimes the thread caught for a moment on the cloth, but ultimately, each length fell to the ground and coiled at his feet. The speed at which he pulled each length was constant, but the distance varied, sometimes stretching the full span of his arms, and at other times reaching a shorter distance, just past the shoulder, or perhaps as far as his sternum. His face stared forward, so that each length of red would cut across his vision to form a horizon line.
It is easy enough to read symbolic meanings into Nieslony's action. Red is the colour of the heart, suggesting the trajectory of our lives as a continual unraveling of hope -- or love, or perhaps blood -- against the backdrop of darkness. Every life has its duration, its distance, that cuts through the surrounding black, until time, like gravity, sweeps away its trace. At the same time, the action could be understood more simply and directly as a record of Nieslony's internal impulses. Each impulse, each thought, was translated into the gesture of pulling the yarn. When the impulse was gone, the yarn was released. Out of this a new impulse would arise, and the cycle would begin anew. The interior process of making meaning was made manifest as it was tracked in time and space. The relationship between this revelation of process through an improvisation and its ability to communicate content is suggestive of the relationship between a mark and its meaning.
The parameters of Nieslony's action were carefully defined: the physical plastiques of the gesture did not change, nor did the tempo; only the distance the yarn was pulled was provisional. To say that his action was improvised is not to say that it was left to chance; rather, it followed a rigid and deliberate track of internal listening. This action was an awakening to the call of impulse, a preparation for the more emotionally freighted encounters with the black and white photographs that followed.
What was revealed through Nieslony's action with the thread was not 'about' the thread. His action was not a communication with the thread, not an interpretation of it, not even a harmonizing or communion with it. What I saw was something about him, something about the way he was with the thread. Or to go deeper (remembering the lighting in the room), what I saw in the action was not about him at all, not even a communion with him: it was an indication of my own position, something about the way I was while watching him. This is important, because it traces how what is communicative is not the action so much as the gap that separates the indicator (the mark, which is a thing in itself) from what it indicates (a different thing, which can never truly be known).
Nieslony pulled out two or three photographs from the boxed stack. One, I think, was of a woman; another, I am sure, was of a child. From the vantage point of the audience, it was not possible to see these photographs clearly, but each was of a human face: images, he later told me, of people who had been murdered. At the time, my intuitive reaction was that these were likely pictures of Holocaust victims. If, as Nieslony suggests, "Performance art is a place where this split [caused by being a picture] shows itself as horror", [footnote] then these photos evoke a horror doubly amplified. They are a mark of a mark, a stain of a scar, a representation of the remains of a life that we can never know.
Nieslony has used these photos, or ones like them, in other performances, but each time he encounters them in a performance creates a provisional situation: this space; this time; the "embarrassment and infamy" of being witnessed by this crowd; this unique "mereness of presence". Each time he must make a new mark. Each time he must find a way to answer the questions, "What gesture could possibly be adequate to honestly observe this encounter? to accurately express this reaction?"
I saw Nieslony trace the outline of an image as if he were caressing a face. I saw him wipe the image onto his own face, as if he could take something of that dead person into himself, to make that person breathe through him. I saw him press violently against the photo, a violence that I read both as the mirror image of what the photograph signified and as a latent implication in the effort to bring life to what is dead, to bring meaning to what is senseless. I saw Nieslony dangle a teddy bear on a stick before the photo of a child, as if making an offering. I saw him push the stuffed animal on the end of the stick into the photo, as if he might, through sheer force of will and physical effort, break through the barriers of space and time. I saw how this, too, became a depiction of horror, an act of violence.
What I saw were a series of signs -- wordless actions -- that attempted to give voice to a silence. George Steiner has written:
The world of Auschwitz lies outside speech as it lies outside reason. To speak of the unspeakable is to risk the survivance of language as creator and bearer of humane, rational truth. Words that are saturated with lies or atrocity do not easily resume life.
When we are muted by circumstance, when the inadequacies of language make us illiterate, what recourse is there, but to make our mark before witnesses?
Pierre Beaudoin and Paul Couillard "Langage Commun"
April 16 - 17, 2003
Pierre Beaudoin and I are friends. Our rapport developed through meetings at various art festivals and conferences across Canada over several years. Although we live in different cities, we have discovered remarkable synchronicities in our personal histories. We have even tackled similar ideas in our individual performance practices, albeit from distinct perspectives and using differing strategies. We had talked casually of someday doing something together, but it was Brenda Cleniuk who proposed to us the opportunity of collaborating in the context of "Performance Marks".
Our advance preparation was minimal -- a few phone calls, some emails -- only enough to establish that neither of us wanted to take charge of the project by proposing a theme or imposing a working style. We agreed to come together without preconception, to discover a way of building a 'common' (in the sense of both 'shared' and 'everyday') language -- a 'langage commun'. We would spend two days together in the gallery, at the end of which we would present a formal distillation of the results. We conducted our advance dialogue in French; Pierre, who is fluently bilingual, was helping me to improve my facility in a language I am still struggling to master.
Language, that most ubiquitous tool of human communication, is very powerful, but it can also be untrustworthy. Words are arguably the most sophisticated and ambiguous marks that we make. Does the intended meaning of what I say/write match the received meaning of what you hear/read? What is lost or altered along the way? Stepping into the arena of performance to find our common language, Pierre and I chose to minimize verbal language in favour of presence, actions and the manipulation of objects. Instead of talking together about what we would do, we went shopping at local dollar stores, buying toys and other everyday objects that struck us as having possibilities. Pierre laid them out in one corner of the room as common materials, and at the appointed time, we began working -- separately, together, in the shared public space of the gallery.
Viewers who came to watch us during our two days of exploration could witness a conversation between Pierre and I, conducted with actions and materials. Pierre might pick up an object -- a yoyo -- find a spot in the room -- beside the pillar -- and begin to play with it. Down and up. Down and up. I would watch, until an impulse motivated me. I might put a glove on one hand and feel each surface of the space -- the walls, the floor, the ceiling -- with one bare hand and one gloved hand, at the same time placing an ear against the surface to listen. In this way -- sometimes witnessing, sometimes working parallel to each other, and sometimes entering each other's images -- we communicated, slowly developing our relationship.
The logic of a conversation conducted through gesture is different from the logic of a verbal conversation. To work in this way requires concentration, patience, sensitivity and trust. I had to maintain a disciplined awareness both of what Pierre was doing, and of how my own body was moved to respond. I had to be attuned to space and time. And I had to believe in the relevance of Pierre's responses to my actions, however unfamiliar or unexpected. I had to abandon any desire for an outcome, and simply be with Pierre. It was challenging, luxurious work.
As Pierre and I worked, we were also leaving traces. Gumballs, chewed until they lost their intense flavour, were wadded up and placed on pins stuck into the floorboard cracks. Pierre scraped the dirt from between the floorboards in some sections of the room, leaving lines of black powder across the floor. Later I filled the hollows with salt. Space and time, as much a part of our conversation as our two consciousnesses, were being mapped, marked. Our selected objects also had their own inflections to add -- often behaving in ways or revealing possibilities that could only be discovered by working with them.
At the end of two days, Pierre and I looked over the actions that constituted our conversation, and the sculptural traces that remained. From these, we agreed on a short list that we would use in the evening "performance" to mark what we had done over the two days. We also added new elements to address the presence of an invited audience, which we knew would be different in character than the small groups that had come to watch us during our two days of public process. We set an order, but not a duration, for each of the actions. We prepared the space, taking away objects that we did not plan to use.
After a process of developing vocabulary, Pierre and I were now imposing a form on the images, testing them out for their efficacy as language. Instead of continuing with our established process, we chose to engage with the audience using what had become our performance marks: a set of symbols, a personalized collection of events. We were moving from a process-oriented approach that privileged being to a presentational style that privileged doing.
The latter is a process of representing, of tracing the boundaries of previous events and turning them into signs. Representation acknowledges an inherently unequal relationship in performance between the performer, who is charged with the duty of creating the situation, building the framework and investing his entire being in the action, and the viewer, who traditionally enters with a relatively passive body and a lack of foreknowledge of the intended arc of the event. Representation turns action and presence into image, a stable mark, which has an equal situational weight to the stilled body of an audience member.
Cleniuk writes: "Performance mark making asks what sort of definition is left by ... the bewildered experience of the viewer in the presence of the art action?" The performance mark sits at the centre of a basic contradiction. On the one hand, the mark is a fundamentally different thing from lived experience, so it cannot be expected to communicate the same things as lived experience. On the other hand, the experience of performing is fundamentally different from the experience of viewing. In this paradoxical situation, the mark is the only common ground, the hopeful langage commun, through which performer and viewer might conduct a dialogue.
For Pierre and I, continuing our dialogue in the previous manner would have left the audience forever outside, as observers. We wanted to acknowledge and bring the audience into our conversation. Representation, the making of marks, was our way of beginning this process, because marks communicate to spectators as spectators. It was our way of speaking to what we had done, of continuing what we were doing, and of bringing the audience into the arena, if only at the periphery.
Our final action was 'unrehearsed', a new set of gestures that stepped out of representational image and into shared experience. One by one, we went to each audience member. Pierre took a cotton swab and gently traced the outside edge of the observer-turned-participant's ear. At the same time, I placed a gloved hand gently on her or his body. Audience members were now a part of the action. For Pierre and I, our duty as performers was now to be as attuned to each participant's reactions as we had been to each other's over the two days. This was our delicate, tentative invitation to the participant to move from being a reader of other's marks to being a maker of a shared mark. It was our way of saying, "We've shown you what we have done, and now we want you to join in, to be with us."
Performance art as a practice has been built on challenges to the isolating effects of spectatorship. It is a practice that attempts to build up meaning from the root elements of life itself -- time, space, our bodies and the relationship between us and our surroundings/audience. Making the leap from sharing a mark to sharing the making of a mark brings us one step closer to bridging a vast gap of separation.
To say that "performance marks" is to say that doing transforms.
If we can make these marks together, perhaps we can know what it means to be, together.
Brenda Cleniuk, "Performance Marks." (Minifest2 poster/programme, Neutral Ground, 2003).
H.W. Fowler & F.G. Fowler, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English. Fifth Edition (Oxford University Press, 1964) 745.
Cleniuk, "Performance Marks".
From the artists' website , accessed December 7, 2003.
Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle. trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York: Zone Books, 1995) 20.
From the artist's notes for MA, presented at "real[work]", the fourth Werkleitz Biennale
< http://www.werkleitz.de/events/biennale2000/E/katalog/nieslony.html>, accessed December 7, 2003.
George Steiner "K." Language and Silence — Essays on Language, Literature, and the Inhuman (Yale University Press, 1999) 123.
I use the term 'image' very broadly, to suggest not only visual representations, but also any composed sensation. An 'image' in this context could involve sound, touch, smell, taste, movement or even mood.
Cleniuk, "Performance Marks".