Sunday, September 27, 2015

Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Dana Claxton in Conversation at LIVE!

Earlier this afternoon I headed out to VIVO Media Arts' new temporary space on Kaslo Street to witness a performative conversation between two leading Indigenous artists of the Americas: Guillermo Gómez-Peña, the Mexican-American multidisciplinary artist, writer, activist, educator and primum mobile of the performance art collective La Pocha Nostra; and Dana Claxton, the Hunkpapa Lakota filmmaker, photographer, video and performance artist who teaches in the Department of Art History, Visual Art and Theory at the University of British Columbia.

The talk was organized as part of the 2015 edition of Vancouver's LIVE! Biennale and was co-sponsored by SFU Institute for Performance Studies (IPS) and Neworld Theatre. In my role as Director of SFU's IPS, I had contacted Dana to see if she might be interested in dialoguing with GGP, who was going to be in town leading a LIVE! workshop with La Pocha Nostra. Luckily for all of us, Dana leapt at the offer. With not much time to liaise back and forth electronically about the format of their conversation, she and GGP put together something that subverted the traditional format of the academic/artist talk, while sacrificing neither philosophical and theoretical depth in ruminating on the relationship between art and politics nor, as crucially, a material grounding of each artist's practice. Over the course of successive prose exchanges, Claxton embodied the conversational circle we had arranged ourselves in through movement and acoustic presence; GGP, in trademark style, conducted his own oratorio, counting out the beats of his text and the rhythms of his breath with his right hand, while brandishing his pages with his left.

There were distractions: Le Brothers, from Vietnam, were rehearsing their evening performance in the next room, which meant that every few minutes the air was pierced with sharp, sustained yells; and VIVO's in-house chef, while rustling up a meal that indeed smelled delicious, nonetheless seemed oblivious to the fact that folks were trying to listen to a conversation about the politics of performance art.

Still, it was a most stimulating way to spend a Sunday afternoon.


Saturday, September 26, 2015

Landline: Vancouver to Kitchener

Earlier today I took part in Boca del Lupo's latest Micro Performance Series presentation. The show was Landline: Vancouver to Kitchener, the most recent iteration of Adrienne Wong and Dustin Harvey's trans-geographical, site-based, audio-guided, participatory and smart-phone-assisted performance piece. To explain the ethos of the show by way of its development:

In 2010-11 Harvey and Wong were living and making theatre on opposite ends of the country (he in Halifax, as part of Secret Theatre, she in Vancouver as part of Neworld Theatre). Both had begun experimenting with the creation of intimate, site-based audio plays using mp3 players, arming audiences of one and two with mini-iPods and headphones, and sending them off into their respective cities to reencounter familiar and not so familiar landscapes as one might look anew at a landscape painting in a gallery with the aid of a recorded docent's voice describing the drama behind its creation. The results were Harvey's The Common Project and Wong's Look Up, the latter part of the PodPlays series that played the 2011 PuSh Festival, and which I wrote about here. Discovering their shared interest in this kind of performance-making, Harvey and Wong began discussing a cross-Canada collaboration that would, in effect, enable audiences to immerse themselves in two different locations simultaneously, using real time text-messaging to collapse the spatial distance between paired participants.

Out of these discussions came Landline, which was first live-tested between Vancouver and Halifax in 2013, and which has since hooked up citizens in Ottawa (where Wong now lives) and Dartmouth, and, just last month as part of the Edinburgh Festival, folks in that Scottish city with those living in Reykjavik. The script for Landline was also published in the Summer 2014 edition of Canadian Theatre Review (where, coincidentally, Wong has a separate article coming out next month in an issue I co-edited on art and performance in Vancouver after 2010). For Landline's return visit to Vancouver, Harvey and Wong have paired local participants up with audience members in Kitchener-Waterloo, currently playing host to the Impact Festival. Our first connection with our partners is made soon after checking in with intern Ming Hudson at Boca's Anderson Street Space. Neworld's Chelsea Haberlin confirms our cell phone numbers and then instructs us to wait for a text message reading "Stand by." Once received, we are told to reply with "Standing by," and then to take a seat and await further instructions from Wong. Along with double-sided maps of Granville Island and Kitchener's downtown core, we are each given a mini-iPod connected to a pair of headphones. At the signal given by Wong, we press play and then are off to wander on our own over the next hour.

The text we hear, as seductively voiced by Wong, mixes a story that unfolds as a series of autobiographical confessions with field recordings and facts relating to the respective locales of Vancouver and Kitchener, and successive temporal, kinaesthetic and dramaturgical prompts designed to cue scenes that we will construct with our partners in Kitchener via a series of exchanged text messages. In the first of these scenes we are asked to introduce ourselves to each other. "Give yourself a name, and describe yourself" are the instructions we hear via the audio. I took this as license to invent an identity, so I told my invisible interlocutor in Kitchener that my name was Laslo and that I was tall and very handsome and spoke with a middle European accent. He texted back that his name was Walt, that he was short with long hair, and that he liked to longboard and cook. You so cannot make up a combination like that and I immediately wanted to take back my little lie as I feared I'd betrayed our experiment in virtual intimacy even before it had really begun. (In the sequence immediately preceding our official introductions we are asked to find a place to sit down and to begin waving; we are allowed to text to see if our partners are also waving, but if we trust that they are, then no text is needed. Needless to say, neither Walt nor I texted each other.)

I tried to make up for things in the next scene exchanges by trying to find the right mix of honesty and poeticism in my texts--which is easier said than done when one is trying to text quickly with clumsy thumbs in the full-on glare of the sun (curses to those backlit Apple iPhone screens!). Still, I think I did achieve something akin to SMS lyricism in my description of standing behind the Granville Island Hotel looking at the wavy Erickson condo building across False Creek, flanked by two bridges and with a boat docked below named "See You Later" perfectly encapsulating the themes of distance and change that Walt and I were meant to be ruminating on. This, incidentally, also speaks to how much I am assuming the particular urban location one is wandering about affects Landline's co-authored text-message exchanges (not to mention the individual experience of the narrated confessions). That is, I was quite conscious of the difference between the physical landmarks Walt was describing to me (an all-ages nightclub, a park with a fountain and a clocktower) and those I was describing for him (boats floating on sun-dappled water as viewed from boardwalk, shops filled with an assortment of arts and crafts). I always feel like a tourist in my own city when I go to Granville Island, and this no doubt seeped into some of the picture postcard sentiments I was texting to Walt--including in answer to the specific question he was allowed to ask me, which was "What's it like living in Vancouver?" I talked about the rain and how expensive it is and the social inequity, but I ended by saying it was beautiful. (Incidentally, my question to Walt was about how he planned to vote in the federal election. I won't betray his confidence by revealing his answer here, except to say that it's not going to be Conservative!) I can imagine that had I been walking around the Downtown Eastside, or even Yaletown (near the since-closed Subeez Restaurant on Homer Street, from whence the first Vancouver iteration of Landline departed), my answer might have been different.

That is, of course, part of the unique alchemy of estrangement and familiarity embedded in such a performance: that our experience is shaped not just by our texts with a stranger in another city, but also by the process of making strange--paradoxically in order to make it more tangible and accessible for an other--a place we already thought we knew. It's perhaps fitting, then, that in texting what he would remember most about our conversation, Walt said it was my name: Laslo.


Thursday, September 24, 2015

Pi Theatre's 2015/16 Season

I don't usually blog about theatre companies' season announcements. But Pi Theatre's 2015/16 season is of special interest to me--and not just because AD Richard Wolfe is directing the other Ayad Akhtar play in Vancouver this year.

Richard is also helping me workshop a little performance venture of my own! Details here.


Sunday, September 20, 2015

Stan Douglas' Circa 1948 and SCA House Party at SFU Woodward's

Yesterday, on my way to the School for the Contemporary Arts' 50th anniversary House Party at SFU Woodward's, I had thought I would hustle down to Granville Island to take in a quick 1 pm Fringe show. Timing is everything at the Fringe, and those precious minutes between the end of one show and the start of another can require major distance and speed calculations on the part of audience members. For me, all I needed to do was get out of the house in a mildly alacritous manner. So far this year my teaching schedule and other beginning-of-semester commitments have wreaked major havoc on my Fringeing. Likewise yesterday. I was ready and able, but Translink wasn't. Knowing I was going to miss the start of Brendan McLeod's Brain by more than 10 minutes, I opted to stay on the bus and head downtown. I walked through the main floor of the new Nordstrom's instead--which provided its own kind of neurological dissonance. Watching what looked liked hundreds of folks waiting to file onto escalators in an American brand-name store that used to be Sears, and before that Eaton's (two Canadian retail giants felled by successive recessions), reminded me--in this globalized age of the metropolitan "non-places"--of the need, in Frederic Jameson's famous take on blandified commodity culture in late capitalism, for place-specific cognitive maps of one's city.

Such is what celebrated Vancouver-based visual artist Stan Douglas attempts to give us in Circa 1948, an app, website and immersive installation project co-produced with the National Film Board of Canada. The installation is up in the Cordova Street concourse of SFU Woodward's as part of the "Hidden Pasts, Digital Futures" festival of immersive arts that SFUW's Cultural Unit has programmed as part of the university's 50th anniversary celebrations. The installation combines computer-generated technology and kinaesthetic navigation to provide participants with a 3D-like, immersive experience of two Vancouver landmarks no longer in existence: the original Hotel Vancouver and Hogan's Alley. A docent with an iPad invites you into a square wooden room. On the floor is what looks like a painted archery target: a solid black inner circle enclosed within a grey one of larger diameter. The black circle is your stop button; walking along the grey one moves you into and through the projections.

I chose to explore the Hotel Vancouver and was plopped into the middle of the ballroom, the interior of which is recreated based on Douglas' meticulous historical research. Frankly, it looked rather empty, and when I went to the edge of the grey circle on each side of the installation walls I wasn't lead through the projected sets of doors or windows into another area of the hotel, as I'd expected; instead, the projections just came to a stop. Eventually, I did make it through one doorway and into an office. Snippets of voice-over reminiscent of the film noir dialogue of Douglas' recent Helen Lawrence informed me that a woman wished to pawn some jewelry. And then the walls went blank. The whole thing lasted less than five minutes and was rather underwhelming in terms of both its interactivity and what, on the display text outside, we are told is Douglas' interest in historically-based diachronic/recombitant storytelling. The docent told me I could come back and explore other rooms in the Hotel Vancouver, as well as multiple views of Hogan's Alley, but I'm pretty sure I won't.

From there, it was inside the SFU Woodward's building for SCA's big celebration of its own past, present and future. The work of alumni, current students and faculty was on display throughout the building: the current MFA Visual Art Graduating Exhibition in the Audain Gallery on the main floor (featuring work by Lucien Durey, Curtis Granhauer, and Jamie Williams); audio and video installations by MFA student Lara Amelie Abadir and my faculty colleague Henry Daniel in Studios D and T on the second floor; and open rehearsals in the fourth floor studios by recent dance and theatre alumni (including Billy Marchenski and Nneka Croal, and the companies Hong Kong Exile, New to Town Collective, Raven Spirit Dance, and Warehaus Dance Collective). At 4 pm, my colleague Ker Wells presented a site-specific performance co-created with graduate students Robert Leveroos and Ashley Aron, and featuring students in his undergraduate playmaking classes; it took place outdoors in the concourse in the pouring rain, and we watched from the second floor World Art Centre patio as two rival groups of students squared off Sharks and Jets style, before being scattered in all directions by a gold lamé and stilt-wearing fairy--played by Kerr himself. Finally, following a reception, music alums Stefan Smulovitz and Bill Clark joined faculty members Martin Gotfrit and Albert St. Albert in improvising a live score to a screening of the animated NFB/Radio-Canada short film The Man Who Planted Trees--which was amazing (the film and the improvised music). There was also a screening of award-winning short films by SCA film alums, but I was already so over-stimulated (and also in need of some dinner) that I ducked out and headed home.

Still, what I saw confirmed to me that, with my official new cross-appointment to SCA, I've definitely found my own institutional place at SFU.


Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Builders at SFU Woodward's

Last December local media reported the story of "Madame Butterfly," a homeless resident of the Downtown Eastside who every evening would erect an elaborate structure of nested cardboard boxes underneath an old wooden bus shelter on Gore Street, inside of which she would bed down for the night, protected from the elements. When the bus shelter was removed suddenly, folks in the area familiar with her daily routine worried about her whereabouts, concerned that she had been displaced from what was in effect her home. It is this paradoxical disjuncture between being homeless--in the strict sense of not being permanently domiciled at a fixed address--and resourcefully and purposefully building a home for oneself every evening out of found materials that, in the eyes of theatre artist Megan Stewart, would qualify Madame Butterfly as an "unlikely architect."

Stewart has created and directed The Builders, on at SFU Woodward's through this evening, as part of her MFA graduating project in the School for the Contemporary Arts. As much a work of installation art as an exercise in immersive theatre, the piece emerges out of research conducted by Stewart (who has an extensive background in site-specific performance) on "outsider artists," individuals who for a variety of different reasons feel compelled to transform the quotidian spaces they occupy, creating new environments out of a total fusion--as in the case of Madame Butterfly--of body, materials, and structure. Often we don't recognize the profound effect such transformations have had on our own experience of the world around us until--as, again, in the case of Madame Butterfly--they are gone.

In conducting her research on this phenomenon, Stewart has been aided by the ensemble of builders she has assembled for her project. Having been lead in successive waves via the staff elevators to the basement fine art studios of Woodward's (behind the Wong Theatre, and a place in the building I'd never visited before), audience members encounter what looks like three independent contractors in the midst of Sisyphean labours. Robert Azevedo sits amidst a pile of dried leaves weaving twigs into different spherical shapes. Eveleen Kozak is tending an overgrown--and still growing!--garden of plastic bottles and bags. Gordon Havelaar goes back and forth between smoothing out pathways of tinfoil on the floor and threading what looks like electrical wire from one side of a box-like metal structure to the other. Totally absorbed in their tasks, the builders tolerate our ambulatory transgressions of their spaces, beautifully lit by Jaylene Pratt, and also enhanced by the atmospheric live guitar of David Cowling. Though this is by no means participatory theatre, we are occasionally conscripted to help one of the builders, as when Kozak asked me to keep an eye on a large container of bottle caps. They are less tolerant of each other's boundary crossings. While the "Rules of the Game," as posted rather discreetly on a concrete pillar, clearly state that the builders are allowed to move some of their materials into the environments of their neighbours, the same rules also state that such breaches are simultaneously subject to repulsion and/or elimination. I saw this most clearly in the interactions between Azevedo and Kozak. The leaves that--whether accidentally or more than once by design--ended up among the flowers of Kozak's garden were just as quickly swept back on the other side of the border of upturned red plastic cups that had been meticulously erected to delineate one space from the other. In all of this, what at first glance might look like meaningless toil, an industriousness that belies the drudgery underneath it, is actually the opposite of Marxist alienation. Far from being estranged from themselves and their environments as a result of a class-based society that commodifies labour, these builders are completely at one with the detritus they are recycling and the new worlds they are creating out of it.

This I took to be the allegory embedded in the "sideshow attraction" that takes place adjacent to, but also somewhat at a remove from, the three other "mainstage" environments I have so far described. In it Keely O'Brien uses the sink and cupboard area near the studio entrance, as well as an upper overhang accessed by a short flight of stairs, to enact her own transformation from a very alienated tailor into a banjo-playing "rhinestone cowboy" (I couldn't help thinking about Toronto writer Derek McCormack's Western Suit and The Haunted Hillbilly, but I doubt those references were deliberate). In part I saw this as Stewart's site-specific training kicking in--that is, wanting to respond in a meaningful way to every aspect of the architectural space she was given to work with. At the same time, O'Brien, like her fellow builders, is working with her own found materials (sparkles, twinkly lights, CDs repurposed as mini hanging disco balls) to create the environment that will enable her to become the cowboy she always needed to be. The song she eventually sings when this transformation is complete is prefaced by the story of her granddaddy, who taught her how to play the banjo, despite only having one arm and also having lost a leg to a threshing accident; like the snippets of conversation we also occasionally get from Azevedo and Kozak about loved ones surviving adversity, O'Brien's story is about the body becoming one with its environment, the banjo in this case literally an extension of her granddaddy's body--as, indeed, it now becomes of her own. That this is the moment when the three other builders also become indistinguishable from their own forged (and foraged) habitats--Azevedo having encased himself in his twig coverings, Havelaar creating a spark of light from inside a globe-like relay of tinfoil, and Kozak purchased on a pile of milk crates, seeming to hang, suspended, within her own hanging garden--thus feels inevitable, but also singularly instructive.

For it not only challenges our own mostly disembodied and deeply functional/instrumental relationships with the built environment, but also with our attachment--especially in a setting like Vancouver--to space as a product whose exchange value is completely alienated from its use value. As Madame Butterfly showed with the nightly construction of her cardboard home, building is a process. Assembly perforce implies disassembly. Which is why, in The Builders, having become one with their environments, our contractors are far from finished. As with a loving home renovation (as opposed to expedient house flipping), you just start all over again. Same process, different room.