If the difference between performance and any other medium is the folding together of the time of the making of the work with that of its showing, the difference between theatre and performance art might be a similar folding together of the space that separates the public and the performers. In The Ballad of ____ B, the stage is a world shared by artists and audience. The seating area of the Harbourfront Studio Theatre will be closed, the curtains will be drawn on the stage, and the public will inhabit the space of the action as they experience it. Two rows of seats will flank the performance space.
The audience may sit or stand, or walk around as the piece takes place. The images on this post come from a series of Photoshop studies attempting to figure out different spatial configurations for the piece. While the history of drama likely has many precedents for this kind of rearrangement of theatrical space, for me, from the perspective of visual art, this approach comes from a desire to import conventions of action art as a way to try to think about the theatre as a specific site: performance in the expanded field.
In action art, audiences are conventionally invited to approach the performance in the same way they would approach any other work of visual art: the piece is structured through a conceptual process or a succession of actions that build up to a tableau rather than through narrative. This allows the audience to wander around the piece, to weave in and out of it as they walk around the gallery. In the type of durational practices that I’m most familiar with, time itself becomes the tread, and the experience of the performance is often the contemplative witnessing of the making of piece. For some people, this experience might be just a couple of minutes, and for others, it may be as long as the work itself.
Toronto has a legendary history of durational work. Paul Couillard, whose own work as an international artist has extended over the course of days and months, curated a series of long-form live works called TIME TIME TIME for FADO Performance Art Centre in 1999. One of the artists in the series, Tanya Mars, has a trajectory that has ranged from early cabaret-based and multimedia theatrical pieces to the monumental tableaus of her oeuvre over the last 15 years. Indeed, FADO just recently focused its Emerging Artist Series on the ways duration is being used by a generation of younger artists.
As part of that generation, I’m interested in thinking about performance in the expanded field as a practice where the hierarchy between theatre and performance is reframed into a palette with the broadest range of possibilities, where the combination of bodies, time, and space can be applied in ways that respond and propose specifically in terms of the situation at hand.
In performance art, the time and the place of the creation of the work is always the same as that of the presentation of the work. This characteristic is perhaps what separates performance from any other aesthetic medium: in painting, sculpture, photography, and film, making and showing tend to be spaced by an irreducible difference that puts the making before the showing. No matter how much an artist working on a live piece plans and pre-produces, and as important as that may be, the performance always becomes something, and then becomes something else as it unfolds. Esther Ferrer says it transforms in situ.
A big part of the thrill of working on The Ballad of ______ B for HATCH has been the challenge of creating a work specifically for the stage. One of the goals is to make a work that uses all of the material and conceptual elements of theatre (stage, script, performers, lights) with an attitude of critical respect for the medium that yields something that is decidedly not-a-play. This negativity has to do with an interest in a creating a productive tension between what I hope will be the site-specific approach of the project, and entrenched conventions of the stage as a social (or indeed anti-social) space. Incorporating an interactive element based on the online contributions of the public will be a way to bring together the previously discussed tactics of spacing and redistributing of the elements of theatre.
It is here where the curatorial premise of HATCH, with its focus on social media as a tool for the creation of new performance comes into play. In the recent history of conceptual text-based performance work, my approach owes something to the Fluxus sensibility of Alison Knowles, particularly in her computer-generated poem A House of Dust. The poem was created in 1967 as a collaboration between Knowles, the California-based composer James Tenney, and the Siemens 4004 computer. A House of Dust creates “stanzas by working through iterations of lines with changing words from a finite vocabulary list.” The capacity of computer technology at the time limited the possibilities of electronic interventions into poetic processes to closed systems reminiscent of Modernism. In The Ballad of _____ B, this approach is updated to incorporate a relational element.
A House of Dust, Alison Knowles and James Tenney (1967)
Social networking platforms will act as randomizing agents, creating interventions in the spaces opened in the text. On April 18th, a significant section of the script will be made available online as a Google Form through a variety of sites including Facebook, Twitter, and the Praxis Theatre site. The fill-in-the blanks approach to the script recalls the aesthetic of vocabulary lessons in ESL language learning. In this case, the didactic form does not follow a function. Audience members are encouraged to fill in the blanks with responses that may range from the obvious to the non-sensical. The accumulation of these results will be used during the week of the residency to re-shape the script.
A prototype for the form is available now as a test. Click here to access section of the script and fill in the blanks.
Another description – a reductive signature, as such – for the term “appropriation”, and the terms of engagement and dis-engagement by which the term itself seems to operate, might be “entrapment”. This is what announces itself as both seemingly and paradigmatically as profoundly uncanny in how we might come to understand and underscore the origin story behind Francisco-Fernando Granados’s The Ballad of _______ B.
Let us take seriously, for the moment, Sigmund Freud’s formulation of the uncanny:
“[The] uncanny is that species of the frightening that goes back to what was once well known and had long been familiar”
A young Granados agrees to an interview with the Vancouver Sun, for an article titled Climbing Mount Canada, about what it meant for him to leave behind one life in Guatemala to another, his then new home (and refuge) Canada. 11 years later, an adult Granados, now a working/practicing performance artist and an art school instructor discovers, by way of a friend of his who happens to be an ESL instructor, his interview lifted, appropriated as such, word-for-word and reduced to its utilitarian value in the context of the “Canadian Mosaic” unit in an ESL workbook.
The staging of the uncanny is suggestive here, if for nothing else then for the notion that returns, as such, are always already loaded experiences. Cartography is profoundly charged by such uncanny movements, not merely across geopolitical (from Guatemala to Canada) and textual spaces (from an interview to an ESL workbook) – and instances that command, nay demand, the necessary abstractions implicit in the task of spacing itself – but as well across temporalities between the past and the present, from the past to the present.
The gesture itself – lifting, moving, movement, the performative in the performance itself – leads us to believe fervently in the uncanny powers laden within the very task of appropriation, wherein appropriation re-stages itself as a complex practice of imagining the nation otherwise as a space for a network of new meanings to supposedly be made, where the figure of the refugee becomes the subject of both her/his own entrapment within and disengagement from her/his own subjectivity in relation to the nation-state – an entrapment and a disengagement within the logos of her/his own undoing and surreptitious remaking within the nation’s celebratory imagination, let us call it fantasy, of itself
Spacing and redistribution, in this ruinous site wherein the refugee is both subject and object, a fragment as such, then come to mark an important, dare I say even essential, set of ruptures in how the time of traumatic displacement and disengagement itself becomes constituted by the performance. Displacement – temporal, spatial, geopolitical – is rendered traumatic in the performative instance.
Discovery of how one articulation of the nation and his inheritance of it as a new piece of earth, a new cartographical space and spacing to claim as his own – by a young Granados – which then was restaged and repurposed in another context over a decade later to imagine the nation otherwise, announces precisely the extent to which the uncanny can be informed by the unsaid and the unspeakable nature of trauma. Here, as philosopher Rebecca Comay suggests ‘trauma marks a caesura in which the linear order of time is thrown out of sequence’ (Comay, 2011). Another theatrical staging of a narrative of troubled inheritances – Hamlet – referred to this as “time out of joint”.
What remains? Or, rather, how then to respond to this displacement that comes in the form of an appropriation and a subsequent scene of entrapment – this out-of-joint-ness of what it means to be both a subject and an object as perceived in the figure of the refugee that Granados both embodies, in one time, and (re-)stages, in another?
An initial response might be found in the nature of abstraction itself. Granados claims that a staging can only take place in the abstraction of embodied experience, in the abstraction that both spacing and redistribution promises in how he reorganizes the textual cartographies and exigencies that are built on and into the absences, on and into the absence of the figure itself. Temporally, a narrative was taken out of its context, restaged in another, and as such this disconnect can only be revealed as a staging of absence and the absent figure in the abstract. Abstraction, accordingly, to invoke Comay again, here echoing Hegel, “is the deadly capacity to cut into the continuum of being and bring existence to the point of unreality” (Comay, 2011).
This “deadly capacity” is, at once, both the “what remains” of the traumatic displacements that abound (temporal, spatial, geopolitical) in subject formation, here specifically that of the refugee. It is deadly precisely because much like the life that is being re-inscribed with new meanings and thus re-imagined, it also serves to undo any and all pretention we may have of how the subject might be preserved by the nation-state. Here, the subject is precisely unreal – or, rather, all too Real accordingly to the Lacanian/Zizekian formulation – as such, because the nation makes and remakes her/him into an object, and the subject’s unreality can only be reclaimed through the scene of an abstract performative re-rendering.
Ricky Varghese recently received his PhD through the Department of Humanities, Social Sciences, and Social Justice Education at the University of Toronto. He, as well, holds an MA from the same department, and a BSW from York University and an MSW from the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Social Work. Being a Registered Social Worker with the Ontario College of Social Workers and Social Service Workers, Ricky has a private clinical practice as a psychotherapist in downtown Toronto. He’s also a freelance writer interested in projects that bring together his various research and theoretical interests. Academically, his interests are in the fields of psychoanalysis and trauma studies, aesthetics and art criticism, the history of photography, HIV/AIDS and its representation, and porn studies.
In the last two posts I’ve explored some of the personal and political issues driving The Ballad of _____ B. Here, I’d like to focus on some of the formal and methodological dimensions of the piece, particularly in relationship to the focus on social media interaction for HATCH 2014
The curatorial challenge during the call-out for HATCH last spring to consider social media as means to make performance felt like a productive way to work through the estranged biographical text that had recently come back to me. There was something about the narrative of _____ B that begged to be staged, and the added dimension of online interactivity seemed like a rich, if uncertain, way to open up the narrative. The call for submissions also coincided with a series of late night experiments in transcription of found online conversations that included an interview between Maria Callas and Barbara Walters from 1974.
__: And Mr. _______ has never wanted to introduce you as two women he cares about?
__: Frankly, I had invited her once to… ‘cause when I invite Mr. _______ to a party or a… gala like the Medea film, or an opera, when they invite him, they must invite his wife. And many friends of mine, then, had said well, we will not invite her. I said, you will, I’m sorry. Because she is his wife and you must. And we talked about that with Mr. _______ and… she did not want to come. You see, so therefore, there is no problem. But it’s not… I… I hold no grudges. I don’t think it’s necessary, and it’s so tiring. And I don’t think that in long run it helps in life. Neither does it help you to look well, or live well with yourself. Now, when I live with myself, I have to be a hundred percent… ahh… honest with myself and be happy with myself. And I have integrity, which is a very expensive… using _______’ words; it’s a very expensive price to pay for integrity and honesty. I can pay that price.
__: Thank you __ for the honesty and the integrity that you’ve shown us in this interview.
__: Thank you for asking these questions. I couldn’t be otherwise. It was a pleasure.
In terms of a structure for a stage piece, I was already thinking in triads:
_____ B’s biography is already over-determined by political classifications; it needs a perpendicular internal narrative. In attempting to figure out something about the site-specificity of the stage, Bertolt Brecht came to mind. Perhaps spacing and re-distribution have something to do with his awkwardly translated ideas of de-familiarization. The embodiment of the character itself needs to be made unfamiliar through spacing and redistribution. No one body on stage will contain _____ B. She/he/they will flow between Maryam, Manolo, and I. And if in the Climbing Mount Canada narrative _____ B can only be thought of in terms of a need for belonging to a national imaginary, then it is necessary to think of him/her/them in terms of desire. Indeed, it is necessary not to assume a shape for the character, a gender, a race.
Something in the character has to remain open and incalculable. A model for the enactment of the unpredictable appears in Margaret Dragu’s recent feminist re-activation of Cageian chance operations for her solo exhibition at the Richmond Art Gallery. Anne Carson’s dedication of her translation of Euripides’ Antigone, Antigo nick, ‘to the randomizer’ who measures things also offers an outline for an open ended character.
In a conversation with Michael, we realized that in the case of The Ballad of _____ B, that randomizing figure could be virtual participation. A section of the script for the performance containing a series of open spaces in the narrative will be made available online to the audience, likely as a Google Doc, a week prior to the beginning of rehearsals. People are encouraged to participate by filling in the blanks. The results of this collaboration will help shape the performance.
Next week, I will write about how the task of making performance art for a stage.
study for The Ballad of ______ B, rectified readymade (screen grab), 2013.
by Francisco Fernando Granados
Last week, I began to talk about the move towards narrative in my work in relationship to two strategies: spacing and redistribution. Today’s post focuses on redistribution. The strategy is a response to the conceptual concerns of The Ballad of _____ B. The performance deals with the circulation of stories of migration in the context of Canada in the early 21st century. The story in this case comes from an appropriated text that tells my teenage refugee story re-imagined as a vocabulary lesson; a random, wonderful, and disturbing find. The move towards narrative is, then, a move towards autobiography, and for me, reluctant move. How to do the necessary work of reclaiming and presenting (rather than simply re-presenting) this narrative now that time has taken place and I am an adult, a Canadian, and an artist?
An attempt to embody ______ B in a simple, autobiographical theatrical staging would be disingenuous. I am aware and critical of the ways in which refugee stories become instruments for the legitimization of political claims on both sides of the immigration debate. Conservative rhetoric here in Canada mobilizes the term of ‘bogus refugees’ to justify an overhaul of Canadian immigration law that in practical terms amounts to a closing of national borders to people in need of protection.
But how can the bodies of the people who make a claim for protection prove that they are ‘true’ refugees? There is a demand for the voice of the refugee to be clear and coherent, a demand to narrate the self only as a sign to be clearly read, to have their voice, and indeed their body serve as evidence to justify their claim. Failure to make oneself readable in a unified manner, and in the clearest of terms, often results in accusations of being ‘bogus.’ refugees may be quoted against themselves in an attempt to point to inconsistencies in their stories.
Think of the controversy over Rigoberta Menchu’s memoir. No nice multicultural storytelling here. Perhaps I am reluctant to narrative because I have seen it be used as a weapon. There is no room for the kind of abstraction associated with the aesthetic experience of memory in a refugee hearing. There is no room to think of the figure of the refugee outside of their displacement and their need for protection. These demands contain the speech of the refugee figure in the realm of prose. Here, echoes of Audre Lorde should remind us that poetry is not a luxury.
The ‘scenes’ in The Ballad of _____ B will be scored through a series of found texts that deal in one way or another with narratives of displacement. The text from the vocabulary lesson will be reworked through the form of the ballad. The sentences will be broken up from their paragraph form into eight- and six- syllable lines that alternate in an ABCB shape. Other scenes will have other strategies. I think of this as a move to re-distribute the texts from their prosaic and evidentiary role into something else, something that allows for the possibility of abstraction.
I also want to experiment with the redistribution of the embodiment of the character, from the singular to the collective, giving _____ B many bodies and many voices. I invited fellow artists Manolo Lugo and Maryam Taghavi to perform the work with me.
Golboo Amani & Manolo Lugo, Covergirl (2012).
Manolo Lugo is a Mexican born Toronto-based artist and educator working in performance, video, photography, and installation. His work speaks to the conditions of migrancy, precarity and queerness in advanced capitalism societies. He has performed and exhibited nationally and internationally in venues including the University of Toronto’s Art Centre, TRANSMUTED International Festival of Performance Art (Mexico City), LIVE Biennial of Performance Art (Vancouver), Visualeyez Performance Art Festival (Edmonton). He received a BFA from Emily Carr University and recently completed a Masters of Visual Studies at the University of Toronto this year. He has worked as a teaching assistant at the University of Toronto as well as a sessional faculty in the Visual Studies Department of the same University.
Maryam Taghavi performing at hub14, Toronto 2014
Maryam Taghavi is an Iranian-Canadian artist with a BFA from Emily Carr University and has since her graduation in 2008, worked as an artist and artist assistant. Performance has been central to her practice, nevertheless she employs photography, drawing, and installation in the research and production of her work as well. The body is the site of her investigation and production. She has participated in a number of exhibitions in Canada, Iran, and Mexico and currently serves on the board of FADO performance art and FUSE magazine. In 2014 Maryam Taghavi and Zoya Honarmand launched jä be jä, an online residency project that facilitates an ongoing dialogue between artists from Iran and artists from Canada.
Next week, I will write about how the idea of redistribution will extend to the audience through online interaction.
study for The Ballad of _____ B (2013). Performance for the camera. Photograph by Manolo Lugo.
by Francisco Fernando Granados
The The Ballad of _____ B is site specific performance for the stage that will be presented as part of HATCH 2014 at the Harbourfront Centre Studio Theatre on April 26th. The piece brings into focus a 2-year-long exploration of the ways in which migrant bodies, particularly refugees, are compelled to tell their stories. The idea for the piece came after a friend of mine who teaches ESL brought to my attention a passage from a vocabulary lesson found in the ‘Canadian Mosaic’ unit of a workbook for one of the classes they were teaching.
I was ‘Student B’ 11 years ago. The text was lifted word by word, without my knowledge or consent, from a 2003 article in the Vancouver Sun titled Climbing Mount Canada. In the aftermath of 9-11, at a time when most headlines about racialized newcomer youth focused on crime and school dropout rates, the article interviewed four immigrant and refugee teenagers, myself included, about our volunteer work for a publicly funded community peer support program in the Greater Vancouver area.
It was a standard story that set up the brutal experiences that had brought us to this country as the background for a celebratory tale of multicultural Canadian benevolence. The appropriated textbook version of the article included the stories of two other youth: Student A and Student C. One of them, Student C, is still a very close friend of mine.
For The Ballad of _____ B, I am only working with my narrative. I have left my peers’ names and stories out of the project as a matter of respect, but in terms of providing some context for the piece, it is important to mention that the three of us were part of a larger movement in BC in the early 2000’s that sought to give visibility to issues of racial discrimination, barriers to education, and the early stages of the harsh immigration policies that continue to affect the lives of immigrant and refugee young people in this country today.
Attempting to reflect critically on these issues as our stories began to be represented in the media led us to want to be more that just interview subjects. A group of us began to work with newcomer settlement agencies like the Immigrant Services Society of BC to create models of engagement for other young people like us that provided a similar opportunity to legitimize their skills and aspire to become something beyond the stereotypes commonly associated with racialized first generation migrants.
These collective efforts over the past 12 years have lead to a wide range of community projects including Redefining Canadian, a participatory actionresearch project lead by filmmaker and scholar Joah Lui, where migrant youth learned to make videos and documentaries; the NuYu Popular Theatre Project, which offers free theatrical training based on Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed methodology; and the Make It Count campaign, a BC-wide appeal to the provincial government to recognize and accredit migrant students’ language learning towards their high school graduation credits.
I was actively involved in these community efforts first as a participant, then as a coordinator and administrator until around 2009. By then, I was BFA student, had become a Canadian citizen, and felt exhausted and frustrated with the politics of both not-for-profit organizations and community activism. I also became aware of the importance of making space in leadership positions within these movements for the generation of young people who came after early 2000’s batch I belonged to. I decided to focus on finishing my art education and became a professional artist.
My work as a visual artist, primarily in performance, had up until this project rejected narrative structures; this is perhaps due to my disappointment with the ways in which migrant narratives are often de-contextualized and appropriated by governments, non-profit groups, and activists that seek to represent those whose voices cannot be listened to within the current structures of the political economy. But the surprise of the encounter with my own story in the form of a language lesson, reaching from the past, compelled me to engage with narrative as a form.
After a couple of years of holding on to the text without knowing exactly what to do with it, I realized that engaging with narrative required two aesthetic moves: spacing and redistribution. As a man in my late 20’s, making a living as a sessional instructor in an art school in Toronto, it was hard for me to identify with the figure of the student. I am relatively young, but I am a teacher these days. My primary training in drawing has left me with a voracious curiosity for linear structures. In reclaiming this particular narrative, I wanted to create spaces within the text that would allow for something to happen. Line became the instrument of spacing. Thus Student B became _____ B.
The second move was re-distribution. I will write about this next week.
“After the years and years of weaker and waterier imitations, we now find ourselves rejecting the very notion of a holy stage. It is not the fault of the holy that it has become a middle-class weapon to keep the children good.”