karen elaine spencer (QC) –walk with me/orange/speech acts

12/10/2011 by the  TouVA collective

(for all the texts by TouVA covering 2011 viva! art action, click here: http://vivamontreal.org/category/blogue/)


I’m never quite sure where I am when I’m with karen. I mean, I know where I am: I am with karen. But our being with one-another, together, is often a blurred experience of time-based/art-framed/life-lived/extra-ordinary, and thoughtfully shared moments. I have spent time with karen in her studio and I have seen her “in performance.” I have been in her audience and been with her in an exchange. In her walk with me piece, I am at once her audience and her friend, I am a colleague and I am a witness. Walking and talking, talking and walking. There is nothing out of the ordinary about this walk. Well, almost.


The action


Before we begin she invites me to come sit on the bottom step of the staircase outside my apartment. We sit in silence for a few moments then she says, “let’s start.” Just as we stand up and head onward, she pauses, reaches into the deep pocket of her hoodie and pulls out two oranges. She hands them to me and says, “These are for you, please hold one in each hand and keep holding them while we walk.” “Otherwise,” she says, “You don’t have to do anything, just follow me.” She is not so familiar with my neighbourhood, but she assures me, she hasn’t gotten anyone lost yet anywhere else. We walk, going along, and aside from that brief introduction, mostly without speaking (at first). Gradually having small conversations about the day, how I like my new place, how the week is going. The stuff of innocuous and convivial conversation. Eventually I notice a particular scent. Familiar. Sharp and a bit sweet. Oranges. Wow, I think, to myself, these fruits are really giving off quite an odor. How is that possible, if I’m only holding them? Then I realize what is happening. When I look over I see a wet spot spreading at the base of karen’s sweatshirt, just under her deep pocket. Her hands, buried there since we started, have been diligently kneading another pair of oranges hiding within.


karen elaine spencer


The walk continues and eventually we sit down on a bench in a parkette. A perfect day with the sun streaming through the trees. Unusually mild for this time of year (early October) but most welcome all the same. The warmth of the sun, the smell of the citrus fruit, the understated, and gently concentrated presence of karen, creates a momentary respite, a serene interlude into “the rest of my life.”


We get up and head back home. Back at the bottom of the steps, karen produces the two mashed oranges and hands them, dripping, to me. She says, “Now we trade.” And I take this set back up the stairs, place them in a glass dish, to fill the house with a trace of our exchange.


The art


In her furtive actions so much takes place in the invisible. It is so slippery, tenuous, almost barely there, almost not, that it is hard to pin down, to point to, to make stand out.


This seeming ambiguity can (and sometimes does) produce discomfort in her audience. Where indeed is the art? Where is the performance? Where am I and who am I in her presence, when we are simply, just simply, walking. Just simply being???


“Simply Being.” When we started, karen said to me: “Just relax. This is for you, this is for us.” And as we started I realized: I am really here, and oh, how tranquil I am feeling – the first time in several days. Busy as I have been, rushing from one activity to the next, this is the first moment I’ve had to just BE. I don’t have to be anywhere else, I am not anywhere else. I am here, with karen, walking. And while this sense of calm I am feeling is because I am letting myself be here, it is also largely the result of being with karen: she has given me the permission to just BE. And be here with her. My keen attention to this moment, my awareness of an energy transformed (from harried and distracted to relaxed and centred) – is a salient manifestation, a state altered of the present moment. It is a form of the performative.


“Simply Being.” It seems simple but it is infinitely complex. And the complexity lies precisely in its simplicity. The complexity lies in its invisibility. What goes on between the two people walking in the spoken, and in the unspoken. There are multiple layers at work in karen’s furtive, time-based practice. There is a humbling of ego; there is a welcoming of the other. There is a meticulous attention to the context and to her materials. In her directed mindfulness, there is a moment of opening up the space, a third space between “the real” and “the frame” (and, necessarily, between her and her participant) that includes aspects of both but generates its own language and modus operandi. Her work borrows from the everyday and is equally fuelled by recorded art-historical occurrences and conscientiously studied cultural theory. It punctuates the fabric of the mundane by proposing a pause, and is, in turn, infused by that pause – is the space of a transformative (performed) present.


karen elaine spencer


(That pause was paralleled in the vocal performance she presented at the Bain St-Michel on the first night of the festival. Taking the microphone between two scheduled performances, she quietly thanked us, “I want to thank you,” repeating the phrase several times while adding other verbs, “I want to thank you for stopping,” “please stop,” and increasingly raising her volume. Eventually she screamed, “STOP!” and the shrillness of her voice urged us to consider how important it is to be attentive to our now.)


Is what goes on between two people walking, really so different from what goes on between the artist and her object, between the artist and her audience, between the artist and the action, and between actions (in a stage-based presentation)? In all cases, we are observing that in between, that third space which passes, almost imperceptibly, into the ether.


I have to admit, I don’t always know where she will go, where she will take me, and I’m not certain that she necessarily knows this at the outset either. But I trust her. The depth with which she explores her practice, through intellectual investigation and experiential means, the integrity with which she consistently engages with the work – even though she might not know (in advance) what exactly she is trying to produce or what the final result will be, she knows this is something she needs to be doing. She trusts herself. And she demonstrates an enormous amount of authenticity and faith. Faith in her process and in her practice. I’m not saying that karen never feels doubt, but if she does, this too I imagine would be folded in to her practice, as another element to be (performatively) embraced, and to be fed back into her work, contributing to its development and simple complexity.


prix – price : $30. +

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dream listener

dream listener goes to the street
she stands on the sidewalk
holds words in front of her
words written on found cardboard

words that recount her dream

others look at the words, read the words, approach her, talk to her

she asks,

did you dream last night?
tell me your dream.

she listens.

when she leaves the street
she leaves the cardboard with the dream behind.

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introduction by Patrice Loubier
108 pages, colour, full text in French and English, 8.5 X 11 in.
ISBN: 978-2-923612-16-4
2011 – editor : sagamie edition d’art

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excerpt from book: “in my dream my x-husband tenderly takes my hand into his and tells me he loves me still and will love me always. i want to tell him i love him too, but i can’t because for him these words mean something different.”

stood a bit back in one of the doorways of the old empress theater. a woman with a cane trudged through the snow to come and talk to me. she asked me what i was doing, i told her it was a dream. she asked me why i was doing that, i told her i didn’t really know, (this felt so true at that moment.) she told me she had a dream last night where she was teaching her ex-boyfriend to dance. she said she has not seen her boyfriend for over twenty years and in fact, he has been dead for the past four, but she still dreams of him every night. she went on to tell me that when she was with him the relationship was not really that good, but in her dreams they go everywhere and do all kinds of things together.

p.22 – text and image by karen elaine spencer

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p. 53 – example of another one of the 43 full colour illustrations
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Prix/Price: $30. + Shipping and Handling in Canada 15.00  Total: $45.
send cheque and your mailing address to:
karen elaine spencer
1001 rue Lenoir, suite B – 334
Montréal, Québec
H4C 2Z6
. . . . . . . . . . .
the book is NOW! also available at galerie articule
262 fairmont ave, west, montréal, québec
phone: 514 842 2144
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or, you can contact karen elaine spencer at: kspencerswim@gmail.com
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an action performed (by me) as an invited participant in jessica maccormack’s art work for viva! art action 2011. « work  equals worth equals innocence » at place émilie-gamelin, montréal, québec. please check out jessica’s full project here:


photo by: jessica maccormack

i hear the motor start up. i do not look behind. i wait. will the police car back up and drive away? no. coming from behind the police car pulls up beside me. close but not that close. the window rolls down. i do not move. the officer talks. i can barely hear, but i don’t want to leave my spot. i don’t want to walk over to « them. » i want « them » to get out of the car and walk over to me. doesn’t happen. leaning a bit further out the window he asks me if i am o.k. if i plan on sitting on a bench. i answer yes i am o.k. i answer no, i am not planning on sitting on a bench. he asks if i plan on standing there all day. i answer, yes.

i answered yes i am o.k. but no. no, i am not o.k. i am not o.k. with a police car driving up into this square and parking their car in the middle of the park and sitting there. inside the car. an act of what? a show of what? force? surveillance? power? who else can drive and park their car here?

i saw the police car drive into the park. i thought, if i am going to wear this shirt, here, then this is who i am talking to. this shirt that jess made for her project reads, « i have mental health problems with oppression & stigma.» the words « mental health » struck through with a black line. french on one side of the shirt, english on the other. these words directed at those bodies that enact the « law » as prescribed by those currently in power. and so, i put the shirt on over my hoodie, pull my hood over my head and walk over to stand in front of the car. i stand with my back to the car. i give you my back, i give you my indifference.

i stood. i watched. i watched the man on the bike get off his bike. he glanced right and then left and then pissed against the wall. i watched the woman in the knee-high boots take jeans and shoes out of her bag and offer them to a group of men sitting around a bench. i watched an older man offer his drink in the brown paper bag to the woman. i watched the man washing windows high above the ground dangling next to the highrise across the street. i watched the older man in the grey suit and black leather shoes walk by. the police car behind me. police still in car. police not getting out of car to talk or sit with the people. police protected from the people. enclosed in the car.

i stand and wait. i think i may be standing here a long time in front of the police car. but not that long. i hear the motor start up behind me…

photo by: cindy baker