October 27, 2010
location: union station, toronto, ontario, canada
duration: 9 days from 9am – 5pm
supported by: 7a*11d international festival of performance art
press: steel bananas
i am wondering what it means, what it asks of us to locate the body between the active and the utterly passive, between standing and lying down? i am wondering what it means to sit in a public space as a deliberately repeating presence.
a presence marked as female.
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thursday, october 21, 2010 – union station 9 am – 5 pm.
upon entering union station from front street you will see a row of red seats. these seats are for the ‘red caps’, and they won’t like it if you sit there.
friday, october 22, 2010 – union station 9 am – 5 pm.
at the top of the stairs leading to the main mall of union station there is a sign. the sign says: “see something suspicious? say something! call union station security…”
saturday, october 23, 2010 – union station 9 am – 5 pm.
union station was part of the great nation building unity project, i.e. capitalism. now the station is part of the transportation system, this never-ending movement of bodies and goods, i.e. capitalism. i just wanna know, when do we get to stop?
sunday, october 24, 2010 – union station 10 am – 5 pm.
every morning i take myself to a place of transit. here i sit, mostly; but i also stand up, walk around, go to the washroom, eat and drink. i do not read or write, text or call, photograph or videotape. nor do i capture sound. at the end of the day i walk back to my hotel and write my sentences for paul to upload onto this site.
tuesday, october 26, 2010 – union station 9 am – 5 pm.
this morning one of the ‘red caps’ walked over to where i was sitting, stuck out his hand, and said, “hi, i’m dan.” i took his hand, smiled, and said, “hi, i’m karen.”
wednesday, october 27, 2010 – union station 9 am – 5 pm.
when in the great hall turn west and look up at the arched window between the interior and exterior panes of glass. you may see a ghost-like silhouette of a person walking from one side to the other.
thursday, october 28, 2010 – union station 9 am – 5 pm.
the impulse is to share, but i withhold. certain things can be destroyed through their transmission, so today i withhold from sharing and fold into that place of protection my already articulated and re-membered recollection.
friday, october 29, 2010 – union station 9 am – 5 pm.
if you come to see me but cannot find me, does this mean you missed my performance? this is not my question. if you come to see me but cannot locate me, my question is, “what does this produce?”
saturday, october 30, 2010 – union station 10 am – 6 pm.
he asked me what i was doing here. i replied, “working.” i then contextualized this by saying i was doing research, embodied research, researching what it was to be a stationary presence within a place of transit. he accepted my explanation saying if there was anything i needed, they were always here.
As her performance project for 7a*11d, Karen Elaine Spencer has chosen to spend eight hours a day in a single location throughout the festival – not quite a squatter, but a sitter, inflecting her presence as observer and (un)observed. After spending a day walking the streets of Toronto, Spencer has chosen her point of arrival, Union Station, as the location for this inhabitation. At the end of each day she will post her reflection on the day’s experience on the 7a*11d website, distilled to a single sentence.
photos: henry chan
natalie loveless, festival blogger posts:
Natalie Loveless is an artist, teacher and writer. She recently completed a PhD from the University of California, Santa Cruz, on transdiciplinarity and its implications for new models of pedagogy and socially engaged art practices. She is a visiting assistant professor in the Visual Arts Department of the University of Western Ontario and is on the editorial board of >> liminal << the journal of new performance. Natalie’s blog posts are marked ‘(NL)’.
Thursday, October 21, 2010
Karen Elaine Spencer: Thursday October 21, 2010 / Day One (NL)
It is 2pm and I am wandering through Union Station to find Karen Elaine Spencer, who is performing a durational piece called Sittin’. Over the course of the festival she will sit from nine to five each day in the same spot at Toronto’s Union Station. I wonder about the choice to sit, for a full day, in the same place. If it were me, where would I sit? What kind of place? A designated seat? A corner of a stairwell? In the middle of a throughway? It takes me a while to find her – she is literally in the last place I look, and I find her right before being ready to give up.
Spencer is sitting, nondescript, in a corner, five chairs in front of the Front Street entrance. She sits in her hoodie and drab old sweater staring into space. As I approach she greets me and I ask how the day has been. No one has bothered her yet. She has taken food and pee breaks, always returning to the same seat. I ask if I can observe for a little while, and step back to decide where to sit. Sitting in front of her and watching seems, somehow, wrong. Though designated performance, this action doesn’t want attention. Her body posture invites the eye to move on: arms gently crossed over bag, slightly slumped, and eyes staring into the distance, first left, then right, as if waiting. I am reminded of Faith Wilding’s poem and performance “Waiting” and decide to sit with her for a while, to try and get inside the performance for a bit.
In front of us are three advertisements. I wonder how much time she has spent staring at them. I find myself fixating on the people passing by. How they walk. The middle aged man slumped at an unnatural angle under a duffel bag; the aging couple shuffling towards the coffee shack. The workers. The crinkle of a donut bag being crumpled and thrown away. Everything is suddenly worthy of attention as I contemplate the task of sitting here from nine to five. Nine to five: a full day’s work. The temporality of industrialized labour. The train-station as site. My back begins to hurt and my eyes move to the roof. The architecture. The signage with departure times and destinations. I expect that all of this has, over the course of the day, moved towards a kind of local, inhabited knowledge for Spencer. I wonder about the patterns, temporal rhythms, and textures of existence she must be experiencing as time stretches and slows over the duration of the performance.
For me, it’s only been 46 minutes and 12 seconds. For her, it will be 480 today, 4,800 over the course of the festival.
I leave her sitting.
Posted by Natalie S. Loveless at 1:29 PM
An illustration of the Foucault idea that the production of the working body is the main effect of modernized,
alienated work? Thematizing the
rigorous discipline, endurance, and physical
effort that is required to simply remain present at a
workplace from the beginning of the working day
to its end?
October 22, 2010 3:17 PM
Friday, October 22, 2010
Karen Elaine Spencer: Sittin’, Union Station, Friday October 22, 2010 / Day Two (NL)
This time I approach from the other side and spot Spencer, sitting, eyes closed, hoodie partially hiding her from the world. She is sitting in the same set of chairs as yesterday. I skirt around silently to take a seat a little way down from her and watch. She opens her eyes, sips a drink through a straw, and looks off into the distance. Today she has no backpack, just a little paper bag tucked up beside her.
She notices me and smiles. I approach and ask how today has been. Busy, she says. Lots of foot traffic. The guards have begun to notice her but no one has yet talked to her or asked her to move along. She tells me that today has been more internal than yesterday – instead of watching so much she has been listening. She suggests that I close my eyes and just listen. I do. A deep hum. Low bass. A drone. A slightly higher rumble with a slight whine. Someone is talking on a phone loudly at my right. It irritates me to no end, wanting to just drift into the ambient sound. But I am learning a lot about his wife. His job as an insurance agent. His son Michael. Eventually I manage to tune him out and move back to the hum. The rumble of the trains. The little buzz of suitcase wheels. The clop of footsteps. All the sounds are predictable but somehow it is just delicious to sit here for a bit, listening. It is like listening to the world through a railway-station shaped conch shell.
I open my eyes to a little child running around. I see a wall of workers in front of me. I look at them intently and wait to see if they will notice me, return the look. They don’t. I glance at all the elements that attracted me yesterday – the architecture, the signage, the advertisements. I stare at the marble floor and, after a while it is transformed into a lovely detailed drawing – each crack a gesture speaking to time, weight, stress, history. The stone walls, too, emerge as paintings with delicately rendered all over patterning. I take a deep breath, glance back over at Spencer, and return to the sounds of the space. Beautiful. Dramatic. Symphonic. Today I experience sitting with Karen Spencer as a gift of music. With gratitude I return to her and leave her to the hardness of the seat, the expressiveness of the space, and the onslaught of passing people.
Posted by Natalie S. Loveless at 1:25 PM
Sunday, October 24, 2010
Karen Elaine Spencer: Sittin’, Union Station, Sunday October 24, 2010 / Day Four (NL)
We are less than halfway through Spencer’s ten-day performance action: sitting for eight hours a day on a set of benches near the Front street entrance of Toronto’s Union Station. I approach the performance site half expecting not to see her. Expecting that at this point she might foil expectations, change the rules of the piece and sit somewhere else. But no, she is still there. And this makes sense, as one of the things that Spencer is curious about is how long she can “loiter” in one site before someone – anyone – asks her what she is doing there.
I approach her, ask how her day has been – it’s now four, the workday is almost done – and about yesterday. It was great! she says. A couple people came to see me after reading the blog and sat there watching me for an hour before introducing themselves. I had no idea I was being watched. I sit down with Karen again and think about this. I look around. Could I mistake anyone for a surreptitious observer? There’s one young man, maybe twenty years old, texting and glancing up now and then. He could easily be an art school student. I look off into space, sitting, and imagine him watching me. A wedding party enters. A woman with a limp passes by. A Muslim woman struggles by with a baby carriage and too many suitcases. Someone catches my eye and then looks over at Karen. Is he here for the performance? No, his eyes move on and land on his travel partner and they move off.
If day one, for me, was about sight, and day two was about sound, today what I notice most is the cold. These seats are directly in front of some vents and after only twenty minutes I am chilled to the bone. The other thing I notice is a kind of anxiety linked to boredom, both actual and prospective. I am not actually bored, but the moment I stop and just sit, contemplating eight hours a day every day, I begin to feel the oh god what have I gotten myself into and how and I going to do this that I often feel at some point near the beginning of my own durational pieces. It’s a sensation linked to moving towards the unknown in an experience. It’s a sensation linked to any act of experimentation: the parameters are set up and the phenomenological journey embarked upon, in all its unexpectable complexity.
Spencer spends most of the time I’m there alternating between sitting and standing next to the chairs. While the performance is called Sittin’, today it is more about loitering than sitting. Sitting as synonymous for occupying space. I loiter, in solidarity, and wonder how long it will take for someone to say something to her – whether a question: what are you doing here everyday? Or a command: stop sitting here every day. I also wonder at my desire for exactly that – for some drama. I remember Spencer talking to me a bit about her inability to just drift off and relax during her days because of the site she has chosen: directly in front of the “Red Caps” – people who function, as far as I can tell, as a mix between security officers and porters. Sitting in front of them keeps her always alert to her role as public performer, as interloper, as potential problem. I think about this as I loiter in front of the Red Caps, trying to ignore them and dissolve into my surroundings, go back into the visual or sonic detail of the site. I listen to the echo of the hall, to a couple arguing in a corner. I wonder how long it would take me to exhaust my surroundings and what, exactly, exhaustion might mean in this context? Would I just keep peeling layers away from the space like an onion? Only if I wasn’t chilled to the bone. Maybe someone reading this will bring Spencer a windbreaker…
Posted by Natalie S. Loveless at 6:50 PM
Thursday, October 28, 2010
Karen Spencer: Sittin’, Union Station, Thursday October 28, 2010 (NL)
It is three thousand seven hundred and twenty-three minutes into Karen Spencer’s Sittin’ performance at Union Station. It is cold, and I am not the only one here. I recognize a festival-goer sitting with her. Together they gaze gently into the distance, in roughly the same direction, as if waiting for something or someone.
I know from having talked to Spencer earlier that her experience of the site has changed. One of the “Red Caps”, sitting in front of us, named Dan, introduced himself to her the other day, asking how she was doing and if she needed anything. Only in Canada, I think to myself, having recently moved back from the US. The drama I was waiting for finally arrived and it came in the form of a gentle query. No request to move on. No harsh what are you doing here and where is your ticket? Feeling somehow included in the formal social life of the station, no longer waiting for someone to notice and say something – perhaps to send her packing – Spencer is visibly more relaxed. Or at least it seems this way to me.
Spencer comes up and offers me her seat: it’s the best seat in the house, she says. I put aside my computer and just sit. At first I notice visual rhymes: two green bags, two yellow ones. But quickly, this time, possibly because of the set-up by Spencer, I find myself feeling more deeply rooted in the space. I’m reminded of a wonderful short story by Ursula K Le Guin called “The Direction of the Road”. It is told from the perspective of an oak tree watching the world walk, gallop and drive by. Similarly, here, I feel like a node in the center of a world that is spinning at different speeds.
Today I am tired. Doing this bloging with a new baby at the breast has wrung me out — its own form of durational performance. Even at a slight distance from the vents that blow just behind the row of chairs, I am chilled to the bone. I can feel it around my neck and creeping into my jaw. Nonetheless, sitting here with Spencer relaxes me. I let the rest of the world drift away and concentrate on the production of space. On inhabiting a thoroughfare. On experiencing architecture. On the subtleties of the intervention: sitting. A seemingly passive act rendered so very active in intensity.
Three thousand seven hundred and fifty seven minutes into the performance, I leave, refreshed.
Posted by Natalie S. Loveless at 1:45 PM
daniel baird, festival blogger post:
Born in Los Angeles, Daniel Baird lived and worked in New York City from 1989, where he was a founder of The Brooklyn Rail, a magazine for which he worked as an art editor, feature writer, and monthly columnist. Since moving to Toronto in 2000, he has written on the arts for numerous Canadian publications, including Canadian Art and Border Crossings. He is the former editor of The Walrus, and remains a regular contributor on topics as diverse as contemporary art and history, political theory and religion. Daniel’s blog posts are marked ‘(DB)’.
Most performance artists insist that what they do is distinct from what is disparagingly termed “mere spectacle.” I take this to mean something like this: performance is not reducible to the images it might result in, which can be remarkably beautiful or grotesque, but rather consists in the ineluctable series of acts that unfold in time. This may seem obvious, or tautological, but it’s important to keep in mind right now since the work of some of the most influential performance artists, like Marina Abramovic, is largely experienced through finely staged and crafted documentation, and is now conceived in a way that performances can be restaged like theatre events, sometimes decades after the original performance. Yet it is the specific, vanishing singularity of actions in time that gives performance art its distinctiveness, and is also the place where the boundary between art and life begins to blur.
The Fluxus artists famously insisted that no real distinction should be made between art and life—art is life, and life is art. This, of course, raises the broader philosophical question of what constitutes “life” and “art” in this context. These questions were given special importance for me this morning when I headed off in search of Karen Elaine Spencer’s performance in Union Station, which was scheduled to take place between 9:00 AM and 5:00 PM. I purposely did not investigate in advance the nature of the performance but rather went there cold, hoping to encounter it accidentally like any other passerby on his way to catch a train to Montreal or Winnipeg. This proved considerably more difficult than I had expected. Lurking in front of the station, I found myself focusing in on a short, compact woman somewhere in her thirties dressed in tight jeans and a windbreaker, her straight blond tamped down by a toque. She looked upset, agitated, standing beside a suitcase packed to the point of bursting. Occasionally she stamped her feet as though about to launch into a tantrum, muttered to herself, and walked out in a semi-circle around the plaza in front the station. She did this repeatedly with such precision it struck me that it was part of a routine, and I was convinced that she was Karen Elaine Spencer and that this was the scheduled performance, or at least part of it. At some point she pulled an iPhone out of her pocket, stared at its screen, and began to cry, and I started to feel uneasy about the fact that I had been standing there watching her and even taking notes for a long time—after all, she might not be Karen Elaine Spencer! Then a woman I gradually realized was probably her mother arrived and she started yelling, in French, about how she had too much luggage with her, how she had to get rid of some things, and her mother told her that she had to calm down or else she would miss her train. By then I fully understood that this could not be Karen Elaine Spencer, and that I was not watching a work of performance art, but still I followed them into the station and to the line for the train to Quebec City. She was not Karen Elaine Spencer, was not a performance artist, was simply a woman on her way back home to some sad event, like a funeral. But then maybe she was Karen Elaine Spencer, maybe the performance consisted of posing as someone going to Quebec City under tragic circumstances. Or not. And so forth.
I later learned Karen Elaine Spencer was sick and the performance that day had been canceled.
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Ideas Incarnate: 7a*11d International Festival of Performance Art Descends upon Toronto
The 7a*11d collective, also known as Gale Allen, Annie Onyi Cheung, Shannon Cochrane, Paul Couillard, Jess Dobkin, Adam Herst, Johanna Householder, and Tanya Mars, are descending upon Toronto for the eighth time with the biennial 7a*11d International Festival of Performance Art. With 30 local and international performance artists in tow, from October 21st to October 31st the elusive world of performance — so often living spontaneously, cryptically, and ephemerally in urban areas across the globe — is opening itself to Toronto audiences who may or may not be aware that they are stumbling into a world where ideas are incarnate, and bodies transcend traditional norms of performance. If you are not filled with joy and terror, you should be.
The world of contemporary performance art is typically outside of the usual fine arts crowds of Toronto, straddling the barriers between theatre and installation, text and embodiment. The work of performance artists is to engage crowds with something both visual and interactive, often transcendental, often absurd and conceptual.
The body itself can be used as an art object, as Canada’s Karen Elaine Spencer’s Sitting suggests, as she kicked off this year’s festival performing publicly in Union Station, sitting, perhaps waiting, still in the same seat amidst travellers in transition. Her body is working against the movement of the crowd in flux, her stationary position the antithesis of their motion. I think of the homeless people I see outside of our invisible superstructure. I think of Hardt and Negri’s assertion that the only way to subvert globalization is to stop moving. I think of people in waiting rooms, waiting for a loved one, bad news, a cab, a route canal. The body itself becomes a springboard for interpretation, begging us for the scaffolding of cohesion, offering us a sitting body in wait and letting us fill in the gaps. It is performance art at its best, and its intent exists only in autonomous fragments of a body in memory; what each individual subjectivity can take away.
Art object or provocateur, the body can be used to provoke and stir the audience’s notions of the finite. As Norway’s Stein Henningsen’s untitled performance at the Mercer Gallery suggests, the body and its limitations can be used to actively provoke and disturb the viewer. Beneath a four hundred pound block of ice, Henningsen lays with his hands beneath him, ice melting into his body, water pooling on the floor. Labouring to a knife across the room, he crawls onerously and the body’s limitations become the viewers’ concerns, each breath stinging through the crowd’s singular body. This performance is tactile, physical, breathtaking.
The festival has only just begun, and Steel Bananas will be weaving in and out to sample the spontaneous fare of Sylvie Tourangeau, Michael Fernandes, TouVA Collective, Agnes Nedregard, Martine Viale, Étienne Boulanger, and more. The festival is more than worth the two-year wait, as this year’s miscellany of artists from all over the globe offer a striking pastiche of perspectives which will surely move audiences to fits of joy, fear, laughter, and tears.
Check out the festival guide here, and we hope to see you there