Geography as metaphor : Vai e Vem

The VISA Gallery in the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts is a site that is all over the place, displaying exhibitions of various stripes, since its inception last Fall. Now, that may, in fact, sound like an insult, but considering that the exhibition currently on display (until May 28th) is titled Back and Forth, and is one of the more challenging explorations of place and distance as regards artmaking (whether the images and objects in the gallery themselves, or in the conversations that shaped them) I’ve encountered, it is a compliment. Or a challenge, at least.

And henceforth I will refer to the exhibition as Vai e Vem, as the statement from collaborator / writer / curator Nadja de Carvalho Lamas, from the University of Joinville Region (UNIVILLE), of Brazil, names it. I’ll cite further words of hers: “The challenge is in the relationship between the exhibited works within the exhibition space itself; when we attempt to comprehend the tense dialogue between the artworks as we encounter them together. The possible relationships are intriguing, provoking significant and unique aesthetic reflections.”

The artworks in the space are from four artists: Jefferson Kielwagen and Tirotti, from Brazil, and Ehryn Torrell and Duncan MacDonald, of Canada. Vai e Vem began as a conversation between Carvalho Lamas and MacDonald, from a 2014 residency in Uruguay where they met. As it progressed, MacDonald invited Torrell, from London, ON, and Carvalho Lamas invited the aforementioned two artists from her home city. “The relationship and exchanges between the artists…took place entirely online, as they did not know each other beforehand. The four artists share strong links with conceptual art [and] have established art practices, academic backgrounds and experience with university teaching and research.” A previous incarnation was at the Museu de Arte de Joinville in Santa Catarina, in southern Brazil, in February of 2016.

That last bit may have caught your eye: Santa Catarina to St. Catharines. I’ll inject something else, from one of my favourite writers, in his usage of “backwards and forwards.” There is no point when now begins and then stops: all places are the same place, as we carry them all with us, and inside us, to “new” places.

There are several works that will immediately engage you. One is Tirotti’s projection on an inviting, relaxing chair, whose dark brown perfectly highlights the blue white of the “pages” of the “book”, turning by themselves with great speed, endlessly repetitively. This video installation, Un Permanecer / A Remaining is situated in a corner, like one reading removed from the larger social bustle. There is a ghostly quality to Un Permanecer: an absence defines the work, though the actions continues…

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Jefferson Kielwagon’s Péralo no céa / Pearl in the Sky is a work that further explores the notion of place and displace, and the images in the gallery are perhaps documentation, perhaps just a snap of a moment. The title card describes the work as an “intervention”, which is perhaps the best way to describe it. More of the descriptor, for the six images on the wall, that are somewhat bland and uninviting: “Three pearls were sent to the sky. Each pearl was tied to a helium balloon. The balloons were then released one at a time.”

I imagine someone completely unaware of the larger project, the art or the artist, finding this pearl on the ground, far from where it was set aloft. Let’s be romantic: imagine a person seeing it descend and holding out their hand, like awaiting manna from heaven, from an unknown and unknowable donor….

MacDonald’s Piano Burn appears twice for us: being consumed by flames on a large video monitor, for nearly an hour, all vivid and sexy in its destructive beauty. There’s a smaller photograph to the side, like a dead thing in a field. My previous conversations with MacDonald about his work focused on the strictures and structures placed upon music – its performance, the commodity of it – by economic forces and assumptions of consumerism. Watching this piano burn I can’t help but feel that the bulkiness of the instrument, the intimidating manner in which children are trained to “play” (the wrong word, surely, as its not fun), like an act of recitation and “education”  that suffocates any joy of music, is being reduced to ash in a field, to blow away and be done.

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That aspect of temporality, of something “past” is present in many of the works here.

I once commented that Amy Friend’s work played upon how “time stands still in travel.” Most of the artists in Vai e Vem are more about a “flattening”, but not in that hideous neo liberal way that discards meaning: instead, meanings and ideas and experiences are allowed to translate to other sites – from Santa Catarina to St. Catharines, from Brazil to Canada, from nation to nation, country to country, with all the respective “national imaginaries” that both sites encompass: from  Simón Bolívar to Queen Elizabeth, and respective societal fragments that we inaccurately weld together and self servingly (with laziness, perhaps) call “history.”

Tirotti’s Outras Visitas / Other Visits is dated 2016. I only mention the date for this work, instead of the others, as it illustrates its immediacy, as with its video monitor and digital prints its a mish mash of “here” and “there”, Santa Catarina and St. Catharines (but this is here, for me, but there for him, and thus the inevitable mutability of place), a Back and Forth / Vai e Vem, if you will. Outras Visitas with its Google images infers immediacy and reality. My unfinished schooling in religion did introduce me to Boethius, who postulated that God does all things simultaneously, and everything is happening, has happened, will happen in one Divine moment that we simply are unable to understand, with our limited notion of time and place…..

Kielwagen’s Troca de Entidades / Entity Swap (another “intervention”) also approaches this blending in a religious manner: a plastic figurine representing Exú Marabô “an entity worshipped in Brazilian Umbanda” was placed by Kielwagen in a Vodou temple (for Papa-da Alphonze) in Haiti. An image on the wall documents this: another image shows how Kielwagen then placed Dambala, from Haitian Vodou, in a Candomblé temple (Mãe Jacilia D’Oshum) in Joinville. Voodoo, it should be noted, is the only religion to ever absorb Christianity, and not the usual Imperial reversal.

I’ve not mentioned Torrell’s works. They’re literally and conceptually the most static, in this space. The back wall of the gallery is filled with her scrappy works, more colour than form, flat and repetitive, acrylic and collaged rough shapes. That could mean pieces like Easy Glamour, Filters and Screens or Wood Pulp are blandly inappropriate to this exhibition: or it could mean they act as a ground, a heavy base (ironic, as a favourite piece is titled Flotsam), to pull us back in when we forget where “we are.” An anchor point to the absent actions of MacDonald, Tirotti and Kielwagen, that only visit the gallery in passing, after the fact.

Vai e Vem / Back and Forth is an uncanny, challenging show. Visit it. Follow the artists online, as they may exist more “there” than in a gallery space. Consider the gallery space as just a portal, an incomplete encounter, or a temporal opportunity. Art, after all, is all in our heads.

In the Soil, Sewer Music

To write about visual art is in itself a difficult endeavour that attempts to graft speech onto vision (usually): to apply language to audio art is equally rife for fracture. But sometimes those “failures” are the most interesting, as they break expectations or assumptions. More possibilities present themselves.

It is, to paraphrase Duncan MacDonald, like going to an art school to make music, because most music schools are a bit more prescribed, and won’t allow the transgression of artmaking in their hallowed halls. There’s an aspect of this, in his collaborative piece for In The Soil, titled Music for Sewers, that privileges the experiential: attempting to put what you hear and feel into words degrades your experience, and only limits your interaction. Eleanor Antion, a significant if underrated artist associated with the FLUXUS group of the ’60s, put it best: “All art works are conceptual machines…All art exists in the mind.”

And art in the public sphere where the environment and audiences are so diverse and different that they deny classification, makes it “worse” – or “better”, perhaps. In John Perreault’s Street Music I, “he dialed calls for two hours from one midtown Manhattan telephone booth to another and hung up after three rings, which may or may not have been heard by passersby. It was a work so displaced, scattered, and marginal that it resided only in the imagination of the artist and the audience to whom it was later described.”(Paglia, from her Glittering Images).

But back to the installation proper: although MacDonald is the designated artist, its really a variation on the improvisational performances that he’s done with several fellow artists. Listed like a band lineup, MacDonald does “bangy things”, Ben Mikuska “big strings”, Arnie McBay “skinny strings”, and my favourite designation: Greg Betts provides “face.” Music for Sewers will be in the old raceway (visible from MacDonald’s office in the MIWSFPA), the watery offshoot of the old Welland Canal, that used to power the Canada Hair Cloth Building that the Walker absorbed and reformed. The “adaptive re use of the industrial Hair Cloth building” as the architect of the MIWSFPA stated once displays that “we were very aware of the palimpsest of history in your building.” This manifests in many small ways: Music for Sewers might be another example.

The project statement is delightfully honest and fresh: “We have been improvising and making what at times could be referred to as music for about 4 years now. This installation work will be our first public presentation as of yet”.

Now, the performances have been recorded, if untraditionally and experimentally. But MacDonald was coy about whether there’d be a speaker in the sewer or if his merry band would be “below”, translating their frenzy to a “public sphere.”

If you detect a hint of the absurd here, you’re correct: its in the spirit of John Cage, who could make some deep points about listening / creating in a manner that cast the whole framework of assumptions in a critical – perhaps heretical – light. In conversation about Sewers, Jacques Attali’s book Noise: Political Economy of Music was spoken of, by MacDonald, as a touchstone for experiencing this aural intervention beneath our feet and street. It’s an odd text that proposes a number of ideas about how we understand “music” which meld nicely with the visceral immediacy of Sewers. Attali talks about a way of thinking, not about objects and commodity but wider conversations. His division of the history of music offers gems like “repeating” where performances of music are all about a fidelity of imitation of an idealized, “perfect” recording.

Sewers isn’t that. It’s a site of reactionary reactive collaborative noise performance; a “readyfelt” (like readymade) physical experience of audio (like Darren Copeland or Myriam Bleau, who construct very formal, technically heavy situation, then react intuitively and instinctively within it). Past public audio interventions MacDonald played a hand in were Music Box Revolving Door, which led to pedestrians pausing unexpectedly to rethink their relationship to where they are / were, or another public art piece in Kitchener where “the entrance to city hall becomes a music box.” Again, absurd plays on propriety and perverted expectations that make you see the wider possibilities of experience.

In the heady days of late capitalist modernism / late modernist capitalism, an experience of unexpected “Sewer Music” is less about a “use” but moreso a “joy” value. Picture a balloon, a gleeful and treasured “nothing” filled with air, all temporal emptiness but a well known symbol of happiness and celebration. Here we come back to Attali, talking about how we must “possess” music, and thus collect it in an artificial form that is so exact and defined it denies the original, unique, ephemeral, shared performative experience…

Music for Sewers will be brief, fleeting, then only a memory. If you tell someone you heard it, they may assume you’re just delusional. Description may be impossible: but it will be a unique, perhaps impossible to “code” into words, experience. Go and seek it out.