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|VISUALEYEZ 2005 JOURNAL: PROLOGUE|
This is my second time in Edmonton; the first time I was here was in 2002, when I participated in Visualeyez as an artist. I'm here now in a different capacity: to observe the performances, to engage in conversation with the artists, to get a sense of what sorts of questions people are asking, what some of the common threads are, and to provide a different sort of documentation than what we normally see in performance festivals (some nice images, but not much of a sense of the experience of the work over time).
I started this process by considering the term 'ritual'. I have a confession to make, which is that at first, the term made me a bit uncomfortable. I mean, I live on the West Coast. So the word for me conjures up New Age and its related associations of primitivism, cultural appropriation and romanticized definitions of 'authentic experience'. I think of a quote I read by Rebecca Belmore in 2004:
"I don't consider my performance work as ritual. I started working in the late 80's and at that time I recall the New Age movement was hot and heavy. Whole lotta sweet grass blowing in the wind and heavy-duty chanting going on. Thus, the world ritual scares me silly. But I like the word 'routine'.1
I also think of some of the clichés of performance art, usually those involving blood, pain, nakedness, candles, flowers, hoods, etc. My frustration with these clichés is often to do with when they are used simply for the sake of their loaded and extreme nature, as though they provide a kind of 'instant significance' (the more painful, the more 'authentic'), or because extremism is seen as a requirement of the genre (it's not really performance art unless someone takes their clothes off).
But thinking about ritual in a wider sense, I realized that the term 'ritual' is unavoidable, perhaps as unavoidable as the need for collective experience, human contact and for a sense of significance in our lives. As artists, or as 'sophisticated urbanites' we're supposed to be at home with the fragmentation, social atomization, flux, complexity, mediation, and irony. We're supposed to be the ultimate individuals who don't need any contact with others or sense of a community, or even a larger philosophical, political or spiritual framework. Those who feel the need for collective experience or human contact or a sense of significance, well, they're still living in the dark ages.
But even if we're not going to church as much as we used to, there are probably activities we all perform on a regular basis to preserve a sense of continuity and stability in our lives, whether it's cooking certain meals at certain times, watching certain TV shows etc. When we attend concerts, sports events, protests or go to see movies, it could be argued that one of the reasons for going is for a sense of being part of a larger collective experience:to be with others engaged in the same activities, to be part of something larger than ourselves. There are activities we participate in in our everyday lives in order to feel a sense of human contact.
If we start by thinking of ritual in this broad sense, encompassing these everyday activities that give us a sense of personal significance or human contact, ritual can be a place to either entrench social conventions or to challenge them. As Judith Butler has written, he socialization process involves repeatedly performing the roles and codes of behaviour expected of us: we learn to be girls, boys, working class or middle class, white, etc. This 'performance', because it is reflected in a larger ideological framework, starts to feel natural and automatic. Stuart Hall has written about the process of naturalization:
"All human societies reproduce themselves in this way through a process of 'naturalization'. It is through this process:a kind of inevitable reflex of all social life: that particular sets of social relations, particular ways of organizing the world appear to us as if they were universal and timeless.2
However, recognizing that these codes of behaviour are not universal and timeless but have been learned and internalized, also means that we can act differently; even if only for ourselves, we can create or shift our own reality. Jessica McCormack, one of the artists in the festival, described how through doing a performance that involved holding hands with strangers, she felt more comfortable initiating physical contact in everyday life, something which women are not socialized to do.
Performance has interesting implications in this context, as it locates itself in those very gestures that make up our everyday rituals, and because it involves an acknowledgment of the constructed and theatrical nature of everyday behaviour. The material for performance consists of this everyday behaviour (holding hands, walking down the street carrying something on the back, preparing meals). Because of this, performance can defamiliarize this everyday behaviour to create spaces for other forms of social relations to take place: to allow for human contact between strangers that would not normally take place or to reconsider our relationship to the city, and to allow us, according to Lance McLean, another artist in the festival, to be "vulnerable to each other".
This, according to Todd Janes, Festival Director, is how performance can be accessible to a broader public; it makes use of behaviour that we're already familiar with in our everyday lives. The works in this festival, as I anticipate them, will both critically engage with the ritualized nature of social conventions, and try to create spaces where those conventions can temporarily be destabilized. I also anticipate that the works will raise many questions, such as around the role of the audience and artist, dynamics of insider/outsider, and the role of local context.