TouVA collective writes (about me) for viva! art action 2011
October 20, 2011
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.
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.
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.