Last time, I ended abruptly on the note that for "those who choose to stay and create, they need to be nourished, and that means growing both the work and the audience by injecting new and challenging works alongside the existing status quo instead of simply defaulting to elsewhere."
Breaking this down further, I find two major hurdles.
First: we lack context.
We have yet to generate an ability to contextualize works within a critical, or even an appropriate artistic framework. That means there's been no distinction made between challenging provocative works and safe status quo works in terms of audience development. Everything is grouped under the umbrella of "culture," which is accurate on the surface level, but there are certainly variations within the rubric of culture that should be distinguished.
I missed this year's Mayor's Evening for the Arts, but I heard plenty about the lineup of activities. Ranging from the comedy cover band the Bea Arthurs, to the interdisciplinary choreography of KO Dance Project, to some unknown man with a guitar, the line-up sounded all-too-familiar: a cross section of artists from Edmonton, assembled together for the broadest demographic possible, who come out to support and partake in culture, but who are not expected to think about the works individually—the work is merely to be enjoyed as part of your day or evening out.
From marketing to execution, one look at the city's arts listings and you would think everything is being produced for one lump dose of public consumption. There is no target audience, no real nourishment, no killer—just filler.
The second and entirely related hurdle: we are the first to censor ourselves.
We don't think anyone wants to be challenged out of their comfort zones because we're never challenged out of our comfort zones. If anything seems inaccessible or potentially provocative, we either dismiss it or apologize the hell out of it. But comfort zones are perpetuated by those who cater to its standards by presupposing and upholding its expectations.
I spoke of Toronto performance artist Jess Dobkin in the last article as simply "bittersweet," but I should go into a bit more detail. Dobkin performed two pieces at the Edgy Women Festival, "It's Not Always Easy Being Green" and "Mirror Ball"—the latter being an embodiment of a human disco ball, set to the pulsations of Bowie's "Let's Dance." Highly physical, yet extremely vulnerable, the piece stretched our perceptions of the boundary between the intimate and the spectacle, and was certainly one of the most effective live works in terms of generating new perceptions of how we engage with bodies. "It's Not Always Easy Being Green," however, also tested that line between physicality and vulnerability. Dobkin appears naked and sitting lumped centre stage on a stool as the Muppets theme song plays on a loop. She is completely painted "Kermit" green with even the Kermit collar, all except for a pubic triangle, left untouched. Already as is, it's a good image. Lex Vaughn, costumed as Jim Henson, then comes on stage, all the while with the Muppets theme song still playing, "Jim" circles "Kermit" a few times, pulls out one rubber glove from his breast pocket and puts it on. With slow deliberate gestures, "Jim" then takes out a small bottle of lubrication and meticulously lathers his one rubbered gloved hand. "Jim" sits down in front of his puppet and inserts his hand up to the wrist. The music stops. "It's Not Always Easy Being Green" comes on through the speakers and the puppet comes to life. Kermit, and sometimes Jim, lip synch to the whole song, with hand intact, and they bow and leave the stage together, with hand intact.
Unabashedly, this was simply one of the most fearless pieces I've possibly ever seen. It was smart, shocking, and sweet all at once without the pretension of trying to shock. In fact, it was probably the lack of self-censorship and pretension that was the most shocking part (along with of course actually seeing Kermit getting fisted live in front of you). Would I have ever seen "It's Not Always Easy Being Green" in a generic, catch-all arts festival? Absolutely not. That work could not be shown without context. And unfortunately already, without people even seeing it, the description of the piece has spread like wildfire in Edmonton as part of some "crazy lesbian feminist performance art festival." Reductive, intimidated, and very possibly accurate, there still needs to be room for that to exist if people actually believe and want to support and partake in this concept called culture.
*First published in Vue Weekly April 16 - 22, 2009
- A.F. Edmonton