As the Vancouver Art Gallery kicks off a major retrospective of internationally renowned Canadian performance artist Rebecca Belmore and Mountain Standard Time revs up for their annual performance art festival this fall throughout Calgary and Banff, Edmonton’s own performance art festival kicks offs for a week of performances, discussions, interactions and interventions.
Part festival and part residency, the ninth annual Visualeyez performance art festival returns with some notables from the performance art world. For one, Paul Couillard, founder and curator of FADO Performance Art Inc (Canada’s only artist-run centre devoted to the form) will be creating one of his relational endurance pieces over the span of 24 hours on the treatment of incarceration within the Alberta justice system. UK-based Kira O’Reilly, best known for wrapping her body around a dead pig on stage for four hours, will also be here continuing her investigation into bioethics and the manners in how we treat each other and how we treat other living things. West Coast-based Margaret Dragu will be available for a series of one-on-one performances available only through reservations made through Latitude 53. Shawna Dempsey, infamous Winnipeg-based multimedia artist, will be this year’s festival animator, and along with Canadian-based artists Karen Spencer, David Khang, Robin Brass and Alexis O’Hara, the theme of justice in Edmonton, AB, will be explored through the less-filtered and visceral medium of performance art.
Todd Janes, Director and Curator of Visualeyez, (programmed out of Latitude 53), chose the theme of “justice” based on the many conversations he seemed to be having over the past year.
“I think certainly within Alberta and throughout the world, we hear a lot of talk about what isn’t ‘just’ or ‘bringing people to justice,’” says Janes, who admits he himself has a fairly strong sense of the word. “But people wish to use [the word ‘justice’] in a very universal way and people interpret it very differently. I intentionally left it open for the artists to explore and for audiences to engage in and hopefully walk away with their own paradigms challenged.”
With interpretations of the theme ranging from dealing with Aboriginal rights and the reclamation of language (Brass) to confronting embedded threads of racism, nationality and political leaders in North and South Korea (Khang), this year’s performance artists will be offering both new, untested works and older pieces remodified to suit Alberta’s political climate.
Leaning perhaps more on the residency side, with artists convening to experiment within a loose theme, Visualeyez sits precariously between an interventionist convention and an under-attended festival in a fest-blitzed city that’s more about being outside than anything else.
As Alberta’s social and political policies and actions are offered are up as musings for international artists, from our environmental sanctions to human rights, Janes relates, “Alberta as an entity has a very different perception of itself and what justice is. It’s different from the rest of Canada and the world. A story like boycotting oil because it’s dirty—that all has to do with justice and seeking a balance of justice.”
Although performance art as discipline and statement rose to esteem in the ’70s, caused partly from artists responding to the global political upheaval of the late ’60s and challenging the boundaries more fervently across visual arts, theatre, dance, poetry and filmmaking, the form as a whole has remained peripheral in terms of its relation to the vibrancy of an artistic community. There is a general sentiment that the health of any arts community is measured by what it can accommodate—including sustaining fringe non-capitalist arts along with the major cultural staples. Looking at Edmonton, there are only a few notable and repetitive performance artists on this year’s line up, including a very similar line up to last year, including Tanya Lukin Linklater, Lance McLean, TL Cowan, Julianna Barabas and Janes himself. Although Edmonton has been recognized as a destination for populist theatre, modernist architecture and visual art, and an eclectic music scene, a growing base of contemporary dance along with improv and experimental theatre is potentially forging new ground for a greater appreciation and tolerance of diversity in the arts.
Differentiating the point of sustaining performance art from sustaining performance creation, Janes cites that it is the responsibility of the overall community to nurture and grow the form: whether it’s getting involved, educating and/or funding, the responsibility of how performance art exists within our city has to be beyond just one festival’s scope.
*First published in Vue Weekly, July 17 - 23, 2008