Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Alexis O'Hara: The Artist Behind The Technology*

“I’m not a purist,” explains Alexis O’Hara, who in the last twenty years has encompassed every art form from theatre, film, spoken word, music, performance art, installation art, and everything in between, “I’m okay with being called an interdisciplinary artist, but it’s also definitely an improv, laziness, dilettante thing. I like to dabble.”

Since her first all girl band, The Hardy Boys, stepped off stage for the first and only time, the Ottawa-raised O’Hara has been pumping out curious and transdisciplinary displays of creativity, living off the premise that “everything is a work in progress”.

Photo credit: Amy Fung, 2010

Increasingly celebrated for her mesmerizing feats of improvised songs, wit, and noise as mixed live through an array of guitar pedals and loops, O’Hara’s unusual process began from the ashes of another band, Stellaform, which in its time was touted as Montréal’s next Bran Van 3000. Originally began as a weekly event in 1998 while she was making a name for herself on the spoken word scene, O’Hara recalls, “The first time I ever went up to perform [with Stellaform], the guys were already playing, and I was wearing this big motorcycle helmet on my head to hide myself, and I picked up the microphone and started talking, and it just sort of worked.”

Starting out with a vocal processor that added affects on her voice, O’Hara soon began exploring with guitar pedals and a sampler in her solo work, adding a loop station by 2000 followed shortly with the necessary addition of feeding everything through a mixing board. As her unique performances developed into festival invitations from around the world and manifested in the release of her debut album, In Abulia, the premise of her art still resides in her skills as an improviser.

On her early days working with this conglomerate of technology, O’Hara shares over the phone from her home in Montréal, “I would listen to a song, loop the two bars before the lyrics come up, pitch it down, play it over and over, and just talk off the top of my head.”

And if you’ve ever seen O’Hara live, then you’ll know her performances are highly charged bursts of technologically filtered nerves and charm, often reinterpreting previous improvisations fueled by her quick mind and even quicker tongue. While admitting that this process doesn’t always work, O’Hara, who turned forty this past year, is beyond the point of catering to expectations, “There is a trial and error factor, but I also obfuscate a lot of my knowledge for comic affect, playing on that idea of a woman using technology, ‘Oh, what does this button do’ . . . but I also don’t rehearse. I mess around a lot to familiarize myself with my tools, like playing with my new pedal to see what possible sounds can come out of it and how to abuse it. At this point in my life, I’ve stopped beating myself up for what I don’t do and accepted what I do do is simply what I do, because there is some method to it.”

Regularly honing her skills over the years in front of live audiences, largely in front of interdisciplinary crowds such as the now defunct Kiss My Cabaret series, O’Hara acknowledges that her ability to shoot from the hip can be taken as her best, and worst, attribute as a performer, “When you see my show, it’s not gonna be slick. I have wondered if I am doing a disservice to my audience that I’m not more rehearsed, but in the risks I take by improvising so much, there is a gift in there. The improv--the risk of it--is actually the product.”

Recently, O’Hara scored her first live dance composition for Studio 303’s 20th anniversary celebration featuring 20 different choreographed pieces set to her original score. Also accepting two years in a row the 52 Pick-Up video challenge put forward by artist Dayna McLeod, where participants face the demanding task of creating one video per week for communal viewing on the web, O’Hara has no shortage of projects on the go. As of late, she has been receiving a lot of international attention for her SQUEEEEQUE project, an installation of an igloo constructed of feedback-responsive speaker boxes.

Using found, used, and donated speakers of all makes and sizes, SQUEEEEQUE comes alive when audience members crawl into the igloo and activate the feedback system with the sound of their own voice. Fed through a series of microphones, SQUEEEEQUE has been mesmerizing audiences since debuting in Montréal’s Skol Gallery last summer, and has since been picked up by European curators in both Germany and France.

As a tangent in her exploration of a live feedback system, O’Hara traces her interest back to her days as a film and video undergrad at Simon Fraser University. Speaking in particular of her live video feedbacks, O’Hara shares, “In 1995, I was playing a lot with filming an image that was filming an image. I liked how it worked and that it played on the notion of the rabbit hole, the mirror of a mirror, and how things transform once we put it out there.”

While the concept has evolved to include both image and sound, O’Hara continues to build vortexes such as SQUEEEEQUE to transport audiences to another plane of perception. However, she maintains she is first and foremost a performing one woman show, “I still feel it’s not high tech in what I do. I’ve soldered circuit boards, but I’ve never designed a patch. I think I’m really a clown . . . and a chanteuse.”

*First published in handheld magazine, Em Media 2010

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